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Fuller Avenue in Salt Lake City is falling apart and city leaders say it’s not their problem

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Helgren is frustrated that the city has stopped picking up garbage on his street, Fuller Avenue. It doesn't remove the snow. There's a dispute over who is responsible and Salt Lake City says it isn't the city. Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Imagine living on a Salt Lake City street where the minefield of potholes is so bad your car shows the scars; so bad that city garbage trucks refuse to drive down it; so bad that when there’s a snowstorm coming, you have to figure out somewhere else to park.

Sam Helgren doesn’t have to imagine it — he lives on that street. It’s called Fuller Avenue.

“It’s just kind of a ridiculous situation,” Helgren says.

“Much to our chagrin there’s crappy streets all over the place, we just happen to have a really bad one,” he says of the dead end street off 1100 East at about 450 South, noting that he’s even had Uber drivers refuse to come to the house he’s rented for about three years.

A Tribune reader survey on potholes three years ago singled out Fuller Avenue as easily having the worst in the Salt Lake Valley.

As irritating and inconvenient as the crumbling street is, the thing that really worries Helgren is that sooner or later it’s going to lead to a serious injury for one of the residents or the many University of Utah students who walk up it to school.

“In the winter, not only is it rutted and potholed, it’s icy, it’s snowy — at some point somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Next door, homeowner Jess Curzon, dutifully pays her steadily increasing city property taxes. But she doesn’t get the same level of services as neighbors living on nearby streets.

“It’s too bad for [the city garbage] trucks to drive on the road. So we all schlep our cans out to 11th East every week,” Curzon says. “You have to pull them through the potholes.” Uphill.

“We’ve gotten to the point where sometimes we don’t pull down the street to park,” Curzon says. “We’ll either park in the alley behind or on 11th East because it’s just too hard on the cars to be going through those potholes all the time.”

Last winter there was no snow removal so “when we knew there was a big storm coming we would just have to not park on the street because we knew we wouldn’t be able to get our cars out.”

Curzon tried to contact the city for help as these standard city services started to evaporate but gave up after neighbors told her: “‘Oh, we’ve been dealing with this for years. They’re not going to do anything, we all tried.’ That’s what I was told.”

No one’s fought harder for city action than David Tanner.

“I’ve been chasing this for 10 years and I always run into the same wall, which is ‘We don’t own it.’”

“Fuller Avenue is in such a state of disrepair and the city will not claim it as a public thoroughfare, street, avenue — whatever you want to call it. They have basically washed their hands of it,” says Tanner, who owns three units in the Incline Terrace condos, 1042 E. 400 South, which use Fuller Avenue as an access road.

“Who is the owner? In the deplorable condition it’s in, we say it’s the city. And the city says ‘no, we don’t have anything to do with it,’” Tanner says. Residents pay “quite a bit of taxes and what in the hell are we getting for it?”

The city’s argument

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fuller Avenue in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office says she has visited Fuller Avenue and feels for residents and property owners there but her hands are tied.

“According to county records, Fuller Avenue has been a private street for its entire existence, and is recorded as such on the warranty deeds of the street’s parcels,” Mendenhall spokeswoman Lindsey Nikola said in a statement.

“Until [residents] produce a record of the street being public, or seek a court’s decision, the city’s policy as stated in city code is to not proactively bring private streets into public ownership without a compelling public interest.”

Council member Ana Valdemoros, whose District 4 includes Fuller Avenue, had a similar response: It’s privately owned and entirely the responsibility of residents and property owners.

Valdemoros said in an email interview she has visited the street and “it’s in similar conditions as other similar smaller streets in SLC.”

The one she pointed to as comparable was Bueno Avenue.

While in poor condition, with most of its length unpaved, this dead-end street off of 700 East, doesn’t have the deep tire-ripping potholes of Fuller. And residents there get city trash pickup, though not snow removal.

“These kinds of street or alley issues are always very confusing to the residents, but there is a process to solve the situation,” Valdemoros said, referring to a petition for dedication that would require residents to pay to bring the street up to code first. Fuller Avenue residents estimate it would cost several thousand dollars per household, too steep for many. The council member also expressed concern about the expense.

“Every time we add streets back to the city’s ownership, there is a budget component to it, and because of budget limits we might not be able to provide a level of maintenance and improvements as desired.”

David Jones is the city’s public way coordination program manager and its resident expert on Fuller Avenue. He’s spent quite a lot of time with staff researching the street ownership and opening up city records to and meeting with representatives of the property owners, including Tanner.

“I have great sympathy for the folks living on Fuller and other private streets in the city but it really comes down to a private property matter in our minds.”

Despite a city street sign and public utilities underlying the roadway, Jones said in public records going back to the early 1900s he has found no document clearly establishing Fuller Avenue as a public street. He has, however, turned up warranty deeds attached to three of the residential properties showing a perpetual right of way on the street.

“Warranty deeds are indisputable records of ownership,” Jones says, and these rights of way are the “compelling evidence” the city relies on to say that Fuller is a private road.

He acknowledges that most of the homeowner deeds on Fuller Avenue don’t reference the street, but asserts that “as long as one person has this in their warranty deed, that’s pretty compelling.”

County plat maps don’t show any of the homeowners’ private property lines extending into the street, but Jones says such maps don’t have the same legal weight as deeds and sometimes are simply inaccurate.

Burden of proof

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fuller Avenue in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

Barry Bell, who owns the home that Helgren rents, doesn’t follow the city’s argument about the street’s private ownership.

“We don’t pay taxes on it — [the property line] stops at our fence. When they say it’s privately owned, I don’t know. Who owns it? A company or corporation?” Bell asks. “No taxes are being paid on it.”

Tanner, the condo owner who has pressed unsuccessfully for the city to take responsibility for Fuller Avenue, believes proof of public ownership lies in a 1973 city ordinance vacating the west 125 feet of the street after that section of roadway was replaced with steps leading down to 1000 East.

“How can you give away 125 feet of a road if, in fact, you do not own the road?” asks Tanner.

Jones disagrees that the ordinance constitutes “smoking gun” evidence of Fuller’s public ownership.

Noting its references to easements and utilities, he describes the ordinance as “kind of a standard template when folks want to make sure that the city retains no ownership to anything. By itself it doesn’t say that Salt Lake City owns anything there. It simply says we relinquish all rights if there were any — underground utilities included.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the city is — or should be — responsible for the street is a state law holding that “a highway is dedicated and abandoned to the use of the public when it has been continuously used as a public thoroughfare for a period of 10 years.”

Fuller Avenue easily meets that threshold, as it’s been in public use for decades.

Still, Jones says residents have the burden of proof. He shared a 2019 letter from the city engineer to Tanner, which included the city attorney’s view that any claim of public ownership of Fuller Avenue should “be decided by a court through a declaratory judgment action or perhaps a quiet title action brought by whoever wants the road to be owned by the city.”

Tanner describes his dealings with the city as having “really gone past the point of any reasonable conversation. The city has its back up — like, ‘you can’t make us take that road.’”

So Fuller Avenue’s many potholes keep getting deeper and wider with no relief in sight. But with winter just around the corner there is a small bright spot.

“The only time the holes go away,” Tanner says, “is when they fill with water and they freeze, so that’s one benefit of cold weather til it thaws.”

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