jlink
Thursday, December 12, 2019

Teaneck—Everyone in Teaneck wants safe streets and safe sidewalks. People who walk their dogs daily, children who are transported to and from the park in strollers, older residents who take walks with their caregivers via wheelchair, all should be able to perambulate and enjoy our beautiful tree-lined streets without falling over and breaking bones.

There is strong community interest in making sure no one falls and hurts themselves.

However, in the last several weeks, three individuals have made complaints about the sidewalk conditions of addresses on or around five streets in Teaneck, causing the town engineer’s office in the Department of Public Works to investigate and mark the individual slabs with white paint. The engineer’s office then sent letters to 110 residents, telling them they have three months to fix their sidewalks, whether it’s lifting the slab, cutting out tree roots or replacing a cracked slab. If a tree’s roots are imposing on the sidewalk, causing slabs to be raised, it is the resident’s responsibility to hire someone to pick up the slab; only then will the engineer’s office come to determine whose tree is causing the issue. If it is a town tree, the town pays for the contractor’s work to cut out the tree roots, but if it’s the resident’s tree, the resident pays. Regardless, the resident pays anyway for the contractor to pick up the slab and replace it. If the resident wants to lift the slab on their own, they must pay for a permit. This is not to mention that stress placed on the slab from being moved might lead to cracks at any time during the process, causing the risk of further financial layout from the homeowners. Homeowners insurance will not pay for these types of fixes; you can’t deduct it from your policy, but insurance companies in many cases will tell a resident that they have to fix a slab if it requires repair to keep the policy valid.

The streets that have been reported as part of my investigation are all located south of Cedar Lane, between Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue. The streets are Herrick, Carroll, Copley, Vandalinda, Brinkerhoff, Norma, Barr and Palmer.

Fifty-one of the complaints came from a single individual, purportedly a local resident who walks his dog at night. He signed a typewritten letter “Harry D. Frank,” with no other contact information, and sent it to the township offices.

Jason Flynn, a Teaneck resident and local attorney who felt his home was targeted, posted on Facebook about this matter and also said the following: “Some fellow submitted several names on one block, as a tripping hazard, noticed while walking his dog, yet this individual skipped three or five adjacent blocks before he listed a few more homes. Some homes listed are as northwest as just next to the main [Teaneck] post office [Barr/Brinkerhoff] and as far southeast as Copley, just before Teaneck Road, near DeGraw. Some dog walker. This dog walker must either ride his car, taking breaks every few blocks to actually walk his dog, or he targeted certain people. Rather obvious, yet the town marked our sidewalk, sent us notices and we face fines if we don’t comply. The township also allowed this targeted anonymous complaint to proceed, ignoring other neighborhood blocks and properties in much worse shape, because they weren’t targeted. I think a person is a coward to send in said complaints anonymously.”

While the best-case scenario is that weather conditions, a higher-than-usual water table or the age of the particular trees in this neighborhood have caused significant cracking of slabs, thus leading to a rash of concerned-citizen advocacy, it appears more likely that the town engineer is only responding to complaints as they are made and that some of the complaints are not based entirely on altruism. One of the three people making complaints is known to have provided fictitious, incorrect or untraceable contact information, according to township office staff, though that doesn’t matter in order for the town engineer to respond. According to current sidewalk ordinances, complaints do not have to come from Teaneck residents, and in fact they can come from anyone in the world who happens to be walking down the street and notices a problem.

Nicole Idler, a Teaneck resident and real estate agent with Friedberg Properties, whose property has been marked with dots of white paint, told me that her concern is not about slabs that are clearly a hazard. “Any defective slabs [I had] were corrected in adherence of my homeowners insurance. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. But it’s absurd to have quarter-inch [raised] slabs being reported, when there are more severe slabs raised all over Teaneck. Due to the constant weather changes we have been having lately, it’s a normal thing for slabs to get raised a little bit or raised [up to] a quarter inch. “It’s ridiculous to ask homeowners to fix something that might settle back on its own after a very wet season. Anything from half an inch to three-quarters of an inch and up is reasonable, but anything below that is an unnecessary hardship to homeowners.”

It was suggested also that Idler, or anyone like her who sees a slab that is severely raised, “should then report that dangerous, raised slab,” Township Manager William Broughton told me.

However, Idler objects to the culture of neighbors ratting out their neighbors, causing them to face significant financial hardship hiring contractors in most cases, or pay permit fees to raise the slabs on their own. Such an act would cause distrust and rancor. “People should not be looking behind their backs and wondering which neighbor is ‘turning them in,’” said Idler. Flynn agreed that it is not the role of community members to assess the condition of the town’s sidewalks.

“It should be the town’s responsibility to not just look at streets but also the sidewalks,” Idler said.

Township Engineer Farah Gilani told me that she is just following township rules when responding to such complaints.

“The whole area should be reviewed in cases like this, not just the targeted address. Furthermore, anonymous or fictitious names attached to reports to the Township of Teaneck should not be allowed,” Flynn added.

Based on my investigation for The Jewish Link, which included making an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request and speaking with no fewer than five township staff members and numerous community residents, it appears that there is someone, or several people, in Teaneck who are not professionals (one of whom has inaccurate contact information) making scores of citizen complaints with no understood method or reasoning, and no consideration of the relative severity of one sidewalk’s dangers versus other dangers in the same general area.

But back to our mysterious night-time dog walker. He purports to live in the vicinity; a person fitting his description has been seen taking photos of sidewalks and noting addresses. He himself has been photographed and this person is known in Teaneck as a frequent poster on community websites who has spoken publicly at multiple town council meetings. The person under suspicion commented on this issue 18 times in one post on Teaneck Newsroom, a community Facebook page.

The key here is that while anyone can make complaints, there is no inherent equitability in forcing the township engineer to respond only when complaints are made. Big Bird could be making complaints and the township would be bound by public ordinance to go out and inspect. I received several emails from local residents about this issue, indicating that neighbors need to trust each other not to “stab each other in the backs,” or cause each other to incur massive expenses to make a repair that will not contribute to the public’s safety.

“He’s complaining about slabs that have little or no problem, and the town is ignoring problems of a half-inch or more raised slabs that have existed for years,” said Idler.

“If this dog walker really was trying to fix the streets on his usual walking route, why did he skip several blocks along this very long dog-walking path with many sidewalks in extremely horrid condition? Those have as many issues or more as the homes targeted in the report submitted to the town with a fictitious name,” Flynn told me.

“I walk down Palmer every day; I live on Palmer, and there are dozens of sidewalks that are raised as much as five inches or more from township trees; and they were not reported. Yet mine was. If you want to make a block safe, you have to review the entire block, not just respond to specific complaints, ignoring a 5-inch raised sidewalk, yet cite me simply because my address was reported. We have no rights to repair or remove these township trees causing these harmful conditions, yet individuals are being selectively targeted anonymously,” Flynn told me.

People who also might benefit financially are also noticing the white paint on sidewalks. “A contractor keeps calling us to find out if we want it done because he has seen our white dots. But I have repaired ones that needed repairing, and I have not received a letter yet, so I don’t think I should do it [if there’s no need],” Idler added.

Bearing this in mind, and many other complaints and allegations about various people being targeted for a variety of reasons not based on sidewalks, it is clear that the council should make an investigation of the sidewalks in the entire zone, and prioritize sidewalk repair citations to residents from the most severe to the least severe.

But at this point, Idler, Flynn and 108 other families are on the hook for the expenses anyway.

By Elizabeth Kratz