Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP


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.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, each week one question will be featured. You can find previous questions featured here.

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.

Adverse Possession JPEG Version

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 I tried contacting the owners of the lot when we first moved in, but incorrect/out of date information on the tax records led nowhere, as did googling the name of the owner…not really sure how else to track the owner down.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.

Map (with labels)

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.

23 Comment

  • These new “legal questions” sections are great. Looking forward to reading more. This one doesn’t apply to me, but it’s interesting anyway.

  • Agreed – this is a great feature PoP!

  • Vonstallin

    Same here I love reading the questions ask and the Legal answer given…great section. It’s good to know that there is someone out here that we can call on and if needed use services of.

  • Here is a question, speaking of fences, that maybe you can use in your next legal column. The fence that runs between my yard and my neighbors is further on to her property line by about a foot. Its been that way long before either of us lived there. Not sure why but maybe previous owners had their reasons. If I built a new fence right along this one on my side it would still be on her property. I told her I was thinking of doing this because we wanted a new fence and she said it was fine with her. However she is selling her house in a year and I’m worried that the new owners will notice its slightly on their property and ask that the fence be moved back to the actual property line. Would they have legal recourse in asking me to do this even though I had an agreement with my neighbor at the time? further there is a small retaining wall holding my yard up that technically overhangs her property as well. Would I be obligated to move that upon the new owners request even though its been that way for decades? At anypoint does a long standing fence take priority over the actual plot.

    • Why not just do it the right way now, regardless. Unless you’re trying to increase your property size, I cannot see a good reason to do it the way you suggest. It might only be a few inches, but what your suggesting actually takes that property as your own and that just doesn’t seem right/fair. I know I wouldn’t appreciate it as the neighbor or potential future neighbor. Property is at a premium here and wouldn’t give up a square inch of mine, let alone 10, 20 or more square feet depending on the length of your back yard. Are you planning to offer to pay the property taxes associated with that parcel?

      • I do have reasons. for one the cost to move the retaining wall is an expense I don’t wish to incur when It’s been that way for generations. The reason I would rather not put the fence along the property line but instead right along the current fence is because The previous owners of my house also put the patio all the way to the property line. Meaning to place the fence posts along the property line I would have to get a jack hammer. If I place the new fence right next to the current one It would be over a thin strip of dirt making this a lot easier. So my reasons are not to gain a few inches of property width. These reasons couple with the fact I have my neighbors blessing should be enough. But I would rather get an ok from a lawyer that someone who buys my neighbors house with that being the set up can’t then cry wolf. I had read at one point that fences placed in agreement with neighbors can take precedent over plots for this reason. But would be curious if this is the case in DC.

    • agree with 11:07 Anonymous.

      why don’t you just built it along the correct boundary?

      Good thing we have legal columns like this.

      If your neighbor built a toolshed on your property and won’t move it, don’t you have the right to remove it?

      • that is in no way analogous to my query. If the neighbors 70 years ago had slightly altered the fence line so that a shed could encroach on the others property by a foot. And then decades later and several owners later a new owner tried to get the other to foot the bill to move things around. That would be a good analogy.

        • Yeah that’s a better analogy. If your neighbor is cool with it, great for you. Hoewever, if he or she changes her mind, she is within her right to do so. As are future owners.

          Things like this happen all the time in urban areas. One of my neighbors was pissed off at the other neighbor about their tree. She said it was blocking the light to her plants and it had a ton of fruit that was always dropping onto her side of the fence and rotting, etc…

          So I think, one day she just cut off parts of the limbs that were over her property line.

    • I’ll let the realty lawyers confirm this, but I’m pretty sure what you need is a legal document called an easement. You and your neighbor sign it, allowing you to “legally trespass” on the property. The easement flows with both of your properties to new owners.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean future owners of your neighbor’s property can’t contest it later, but I’ll just say that it’s something to look into.

      • ah

        Yep. If your neighbor gives you permission she can also revoke permission. And so could the new neighbors if she sells. You need an easement or at least a long-term rental agreement. It’s just not worth it–get a jackhammer.

  • nice feature. I have one small comment. The Zoning Commission cannot close an alley. Only the D.C. Council can do that. One can initiate the process by filing a petition through the D.C. Surveyor’s office.

  • A somewhat similar situation exists between the 1100 block of Lamont and Kenyon. The plots on the north end are landlocked by an empty lot.

    See the map here: [google maps]

    Ideally the city would buy the lot (its listed for sale) and provide alley to the landlocked properties. The remaining space could be parking or community garden space similar to what occurred one block north.

    • ah

      Why don’t the landlocked properties buy the lot, instead of having the taxpayers do it? You could each have an extra 30 feet of land as well as some parking (if that’s what you want). Or you can let people turn your land into community garden, if that’s what you want.

      And, btw, it’s not “landlocked” since you have access to the street on the other side. There’s just no alley access.

      • I also live on that block and have investigated purchsing that property, but he’s asking for too much money (between $200K and $300K. However, my property is not adjacent to the vacant lot. I already have car access to my backyard.

        I like the idea of a park or at least green space. I would just like something done with the property because it is an eyesore. It’s actually not vacant. It’s paved and has an old cinder block structure (old mechanic shop I believe) with a large paved area overgrown with weeds and full of trash. The entire property is enclosed by a rusty, crooked, ugly fence that falls over every other month. At one point, the owner was using an old metal bed frame to cover a large gap in the fence.

        I second the idea of the city buying the property and turning it into a park or green space just as they’re doing a block north. Actually, they may eventually get the property anyway. I’m not sure the owner will ever be able to sell for a profit, so now he’s just throwing property taxes down the drain year after year.

  • if the alley were opened, it would be illegal to park there, right?

  • I’m another neighbor who has been blocked out by this fence. What the second diagram doesn’t show is that they have built the fence beyond the proper lines on the west side as well. Yet another property blocked by this fence houses a handicapped individual and their ramp access is in the rear on the house. If this fence was moved back to the property line they would have a much easier time accessing their house in a wheelchair.

    I have been in contact with Jim Graham about this issue and he put me in contact with Aaron Rhones at the DCDOT.

  • Great section.

  • I agree. The new “get a DC related legal question answered” section is informative and interesting!

  • First of all, let me say to PoP and Griffin & Murphy that this is a great feature. Glad to see someone available to answer questions like these. That having been said, however, just wanted to point out that the D.C. Zoning Commission doesn’t review alley closing applications–the Council does. The process is initiated in the Office of the Surveyor, and the closure must be approved by the Councilmember, so either pursuing alley closure or petitioning for paving by DDOT, reaching out to the Councilmember in question is a good idea.

  • I’d probably rent a uhaul and do a little fence removal myself instead of waiting for the beaurocracy to churn

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