Trip, Slip and Fall Hazard: Hidden Depressions in Grade

Successful landscapes require:

  • Proper grading, drainage and amended soil.
  • An automatic irrigation system achieving 100% head to head coverage.
  • Properly installed, high quality plant material.

Each of these functions may require a specific type component, installed at a specific height or location to reduce the potential of creating a site hazard that may result in an accident.  In commercial applications, landscape plans usually include details and specifications dictating type of product and how it should be installed.

Many common landscape products may be improperly installed including:

  • Pop up heads may be incorrectly set to grade against a sidewalk.
  • Valve or drainage boxes set too high or low relative to finish grade.
  • Shrub head installed on a riser adjacent to concrete improvement.
  • Hidden, obscured depressions in grade due to substandard compaction, settlement and subsidence.

    Drainage box set too low.

Improper product selection or substandard installation practices may appear obvious.  A pop up sprinkler head set above the top of  adjacent concrete sidewalk creates a trip hazard.  A drainage structure set well below the turf grade creates a trip slip and fall hazard.  Selecting and installing a spray head on a rigid riser next to a pedestrian sidewalk is a sub-standard industry practice that creates a trip and fall hazard.

Spray head on a riser next to a sidewalk creates a trip hazard.

Not all landscape hazards are visible.  Turf areas may have grade depressions or holes that are hidden by overgrown turf grass.  Depending on the cause and time period, turf grass may completely hide the depth, location and size of the depression or hole, creating a hidden hazard.

A depression, rut or hole may result from several factors.  Repeated mowing on saturated turf may  create ruts.  Overwatering may cause irrigation or utility trench settlement.  A dead tree removed from a turf area may result in a future depression if the grade is not properly backfilled and compacted.

A seven inch deep hole hidden by turf grass.

Bermuda grass is a fast horizontal spreading turf-grass used in parks and recreation facilities throughout the country.  Unless regularly aerated and de-thatched, Bermuda grass in known to grow a  thick layer of thatch.  Over time, the thatch layer can increase the turf grade several inches above adjacent sidewalk and curbs.

The backfill in utility trenches installed across pre-existing turf may settle, creating a depression in the sub-grade.  The photo depicts the edge of a trench cut across an asphalt driveway, across a turf area.  The trench backfill eventually settled, creating a trench sub-grade depression hidden by the Bermuda grass.

Thatch, hidden depression and sanded turf.

The depression resulted in a trip and fall accident.  After the accident, several hidden turf depressions were “sanded” to fill  depressions to proper grade.

Not all landscape hazards are open and obvious.  Even a perfectly installed landscape may develop hazardous conditions if not regularly inspected and maintained.

Irrigation systems should be monitored, inspected, tested and adjusted monthly.  Turf should be trimmed around utility boxes and vaults regularly, aerated and de-thatched annually to maintain optimum performance and minimize grade changes.  Drainage structures should be grade adjusted, repaired or replaced when damaged.  Valve, electrical and junction boxes should be monitored for grade changes and adjusted as required.  Bark mulch thickness should be monitored and supplemented annually to maintain proper coverage and grade.

In summary, a properly installed landscape is composed of several systems and components that require regular ongoing maintenance for optimum performance, efficiency and safety.  Pro-active landscape maintenance may reduce potential hazards, resultant accidents and lawsuits.  These actions demonstrates an Owner’s recognition of protecting the health and safety of the public, pedestrians, friends and family who may visit and use the site and may prove useful in a legal action.

Arborist Online Learning Opportunities in the Covid Era

In a recent blog, I discussed using online media for a site online site inspection involving a Torrey pine tree root conflict with adjacent asphalt paving.  That marked the first time I used an online media tool rather than being physically present at the site.  My client and I used Facetime to conduct the real time inspection.

As the restrictions ease, I believe the use of online media such as Zoom, Hangouts, Facetime etc will increase.  I have already presented this concept to a legal client in Northern California concerning an irrigation inspection.  Do I really need to fly from San Diego to San Francisco, rent a car, drive to the site, observe irrigation defects, then reverse the process returning home or, can I watch the inspection over the web?  The level of scrutiny required depends on the individual case.

A slide from Dr. Smiley’s presentation

Like so many other industries, the tree industry is rapidly adapting to the new Covid – 19 reality.  Today, I attended an online Zoom seminar titled Sidewalks, Urban Plazas and Tree Roots.  This seminar was presented through the ISA Southern Extension.  I believe it was originally going to be part of a “normal” ISA Southern Association Annual meeting that was cancelled due to Covid.

The online presentation occurred through Zoom with over 1000 arborists throughout the U.S. and other countries attending. The topic concerned tree roots damaging sidewalks, presented by Dr. Thomas Smiley.  Once a few technical glitches were adjusted, the presentation was almost identical to what I had experienced attending many seminars.

The slides presented alongside the audio streaming from Dr. Smiley was easy to view.  I became immersed in the content and found myself taking pics of some of the slides.  The topic provided test data results using different techniques designed to reduce root intrusion beneath sidewalks.

Incorporating root growth inhibitor practices

 

The presentation lasted an hour, same amount of time I’m accustomed to when attending a seminar.  Although I already knew a great deal about the topic, I still came away with new information for use in my practice, including a great specification detail incorporating multiple root growth inhibitor practices that may reduce sidewalk damage due to roots.

In the past month, I’ve been able to continue my consulting practice from my home office.  I’ll continue to utilize more online media tools, whether for learning, conducting site inspection work, and client meetings.  I believe these new opportunities are one of the (few) beneficial results from the Covid-19 virus.

I recently provided a client with a proposal to develop landscape maintenance specifications for commercial properties located in several different climatic regions.  The proposal did not include any site visits.  All data collection would occur online through various means.  Using online data collection versus conducting multiple site visits saved the client thousands of dollars.

I’m looking forward to these new opportunities utilizing online media sources as potential replacement for physical presence.  Hopefully it will prove an efficient, effective, cost saving technique without sacrificing product accuracy.

 

 

 

Trees Damaging Los Angeles Infrastructure, Who Is Responsible for Liability and Repairs?

In May and June of 2015, The Los Angeles Times published articles addressing the problem of crumbling sidewalk infrastructure within the City of Los Angeles. The articles focused on the challenges pedestrians face in this car-dominated city. After years of mounting complaints and lawsuits caused by defective, dangerous sidewalks, city officials are finally beginning to address the problems caused by trees that were planted within city parkways, medians and right of ways.

Roots have damaged the sidewalk creating a trip and fall hazard

Roots have damaged the sidewalk creating a trip and fall hazard

After decades of deferred maintenance, the City Council, the Mayor, and public work officials are finally turning their attention toward addressing the problem, and trying to figure out how to juggle spending requirements resulting from legal settlements and sort out who is responsible for future sidewalk maintenance, as well as liability for future injuries caused by damaged sidewalks.

The first question, who is responsible for sidewalk repair and replacement caused by trees growing within city parkways and right of ways? California state law placed the burden of sidewalk repairs on adjacent property owners. A majority of California cities adhere to the state policy, however not the City of Los Angeles, which forty years ago opted for a policy that made the City responsible for repairing sidewalks damaged by tree roots in city parkways. Back in the 1970’s, when federal funding was available for the work, Los Angeles opted to pay for tree-damaged sidewalks. When the federal funding was depleted, voters declined to support tax increases for the repair work, leading to the current massive backlog of damaged sidewalks.

Instead of removing invasive, surface rooting tree species and replacing damaged sidewalks, the city embarked on a less expensive program of temporary asphalt patches in an attempt to smooth over displaced, uneven sidewalks. The problems continue to mount, with over 19,000 sidewalk complaints within the past five years alone. Over 40% of the complaints have been ignored, with no repairs having been made, mainly due to inspections never being made or the sidewalks so severely damaged they require complete rebuilding.

The City is now proposing a policy to address the situation. Under the proposed policy, neighborhood sidewalks damaged by city parkway trees would be replaced at the city’s expense. However, after repairs are completed, responsibility for repair, maintenance and liability would be shifted upon the adjacent property owner.

The proposal has received mixed comments from residential and commercial property owners. Businesses already pay taxes they assume local government should be using for infrastructure repairs. Additionally, requiring businesses to pay for repairs would harm retailers, especially in districts lined with problematics trees. Many commercial property owners would be forced to pass on the expense to the small business owners that rent the property.

Ficus roots creating a sidewalk hazard

Ficus roots creating a sidewalk hazard

Under the “fix and release” program, repairs would be made by the city, and then future responsibility for the sidewalks transferred to the homeowner. Some homeowners feel this would be an equitable solution to the current problem, other disagree, stating they would be saddled with big bills down the road, particularly if the city does not fix the “root” cause of the problem, that being tree roots or leaking utilities.

The city must grapple with both sides of a delicate issue, trying to preserve the benefits of large, picturesque trees providing neighborhood character while having to remove the same trees whose invasive roots have damaged infrastructure and would continue to do so if left in place. To begin the process, the city acknowledged they do not really know how extensive the problem is. The city has no existing tree inventory of the tree and sidewalk condition. Without this information, it would be difficult for the city to measure progress as they attempt to implement any new sidewalk management policy.

Certified and registered consulting arborists consult with Southern California municipalities and private property owners involved in trip and fall litigation caused by tree root lifted and damaged sidewalks. Typically lifted and damaged sidewalks caused by tree roots are due to inappropriate tree selection. Species such as Sycamore, Ficus, Eucalyptus and Ash trees planted decades ago in restricted parkway planters were most often associated with damaged infrastructure.

Sidewalk repair or replacement without addressing the existing tree species ignores the problem. Passing on responsibility for future repairs and liability to adjacent property owners would be an unjust situation for taxpayers. Large, surface rooting, invasive species should be closely examined for mitigation in conjunction with infrastructure replacement. Perhaps root pruning and root barriers might be an appropriate remediation that would protect future infrastructure while retaining large pre-existing species.

However, many species planted decades ago were and will always be inappropriate for confined parkways. Root pruning a large Ficus or Sycamore could easily de-stabilize the tree, resulting in a catastrophic failure. Who would be liable for a tree failure and resultant property damage, or worse, personal injury or death? Citizens might have to accept they cannot have the best of both worlds, where large, invasive trees are retained for neighborhood character, sidewalks are repaired and the city remains responsible.

Over the decades, many newer street tree species have been developed that provide desirable growth characteristics while minimizing damaging invasive root systems and towering canopies that conflict with traffic and overhead utilities. Reasonable compromises can and should be made toward replacing older, inappropriate tree species with newer species that will provide community benefits while minimizing maintenance costs and damaged infrastructure.

Hopefully, the City of Los Angeles and other municipalities facing this problem elect to use certified and registered consulting arborist and horticulturists as they consider how to address their urban forest and infrastructure issues.

To read the full Los Angeles Times Article, click the link:

L.A. Considers Shifting Responsibility to Property Owners