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, Amy, writes:
There is a fenced-in empty lot the width of my house and my next door neighbor’s house. I only bought my house 2 years ago, and the title search at the time shows we have all the land we are meant to. But regarding the empty lot, we believe they have adversely possessed the city alleyway between our lot and theirs. That would be about 10 feet in back of our two houses. If their fence were moved back, we could park in the alley like those across the block do in their alleyway. It would significantly add to the value of the house, even though it wouldn’t technically be our land.
How can we prove if they have adversely possessed this city alleyway? If they have, what recourse do we have, given that it is the city that has been harmed, not us, technically? Do we have any standing in this matter? I tried contacting the owners of the lot when we first moved in, but incorrect/out of date information on the tax records led nowhere, as did googling the name of the owner…not really sure how else to track the owner down. Of course what I would really like to do is buy the whole lot from the mystery owner, and sell half of it to my neighbor…but that is a different question.
Griffin & Murphy, LLP Respond:
Good news for Amy! Amy’s lot is part of a legal subdivision covering the square where her lot is located. The alley in question was created at the time the original Subdivision Plat for Amy’s square was recorded at the DC Surveyor’s office. The drawing which Amy supplied (see attached) and which she titled “adverse possession scenario” was not completely accurate because it did not show the alley located behind Amy’s property. According to the City records, there is a record alley that runs directly behind Amy’s property which has been illegally fenced in. Throughout the City we have what are commonly known as “paper alleys.” Paper alleys exist only on paper and are not paved, may not have curb cut access, or appear to be an alley to the passer-by, but do have all the same legal protections of a government designated alley. Amy should be able to get the City to stop the owner of the interior lot from encroaching upon the portion of the alley behind her lot so that she can gain access to the rear of her property from the alley. Answer continues after the jump.
A more accurate drawing of Amy’s square and the alley is attached. Amy’s lot is identified as lot “A” on the drawing. The interior lot is identified as lot “B”. As you can see, the owner of the interior lot has fenced in a portion of the alley that he does not own (the area between the dashed lines). No one can adversely possess an alley because an alley is municipal property. The government cannot be forced to cede ownership of any of its property just because someone is improperly using it. There two potential options for this alley: (1) work with DDOT to pave the alley or (2) petition to have the alley closed. Working with DDOT to pave an alley would probably take time and local pressure from your councilmember. The closing of an alley can only be accomplished by the filing of a petition for a formal alley closing with the D.C. Zoning Commission. If the alley were lawfully closed, then the ownership of the alley would revert to the adjoining property owners with each getting 50% of the alley abutting their property. I doubt that an alley closing would be allowed in this case because it would land lock Amy and her neighbor, a situation that was intended to be avoided in the first instance by the creation of the alley behind their lots.
Amy should also call a DCRA Inspector and ask the inspector to review the record plat and our drawing. The inspector should then be able to cite the interior lot owner for improperly fencing in the alley and require him to remove the portion of his fence that is blocking the record alley. A check of the current tax records and/or the DC land records should provide the name and current mailing address for the owner of the interior lot.
Interior lots are sporadically located in squares all over the City. When they come on the market, they are usually not worth much and usually are only of interest to other owners of lots in the same square. It is hard to put a price on these interior lots. If the owner of the interior lot is being chased by the DCRA, maybe he will be more inclined to accept a reasonable offer to sell from his neighbors. Amy and her neighbor could then buy the interior lot and use it for legal parking. Having these legal off-street parking spaces would definitely increase the value of their properties. Good luck.
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.