Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.
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A reader, Vicky, writes:
“I am wondering what the laws are for using vacant lots for gardening purposes. I am a renter on the 700 block of Morton Street NW and I hate to see the space at 725 Morton Street (picture attached) wasted and covered with trash (the picture does not reflect the current trash levels, which are much worse). While there is nothing I can do about the building (a neighbor told me that it is owned by the city after they discovered that the guy building it didn’t have the proper permits), I would love for the front yard to be used as some sort of garden. Veggies, flowers, or just a few trees – anything would be better than the condition it’s in now. I’m sure there are safety concerns about people being in the front yard of a building that’s only half-finished, but is there any sort of precedent for a community group using space like this for a similar purpose? And leads on who to contact to get that ball rolling? Or if it’s illegal – what is the likelihood of adverse consequences to going ahead and planting things there anyway (not the easiest thing in the world, the dirt would need a lot of work)? Any thoughts from the legal experts and the readers on ways to improve this lot, and consequently the whole block, would be appreciated!”
Griffin & Murphy, LLP respond:
This property, which is actually located at 723 Morton Street N.W., received some publicity a couple of years ago because the owner was cited by the city for illegal construction. Although the city cited the owner for building the existing structure without the proper permits, it has not condemned the building, and therefore, it is still privately owned property. Strictly speaking, you are not allowed to legally enter upon private property without the owner’s permission, and to do so would constitute a trespass. If a “No Trespassing” sign has been posted by the owner, you could be liable for criminal trespass, which might result in your arrest if the police were called; otherwise, you would only be guilty of civil trespass, which exposes you to liability for actual damages only. It would be hard to argue that you damaged this property if you planted a garden in the front yard.
Because the structure on this property was illegally constructed, the DC government has the authority to raze the building and charge the property owners for the cost of the demolition. If the city has not condemned the property up until now, we think it unlikely that it will do so in the near future barring some major change in the conditions on the property. We suggest that you contact DCRA to see what their intentions are with regard to this property and its owner. Answer continues after the jump.
If this property were to be condemned by the city, you would still not be able to enter it legally unless the city approved it for public use, which it is unlikely to do under the present circumstances given that there is a partially completed and possibly dangerous building on the property.
As you may know, the city recently enacted legislation that changed the law so that vacant properties are no longer taxed at the onerous Class 3 rate ($10 for every $100 of assessed value), and instead, the Class 3 rate now applies exclusively to properties ruled by DCRA or the Board of Condemnation to be “blighted.” There is a good chance that this property in its present condition might be considered to be “blighted.” Therefore, the owner of this property might be willing to allow you to plant a community garden or at least clean up the front yard because these efforts might make it more difficult for DCRA or the Board of Condemnation to classify this as a “blighted” property. I would contact the owner of the property to see if they are willing to work out an arrangement with you.
This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.