Dear PoPville – Who Owns Your Front Yard?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Vileinist

“Dear PoPville,

Have you heard people talking about the fact that the city actually owns the land up to the front porch??? We have a leak in the water line in our front yard and DC water says it’s on our property but I’ve heard from several people that we should fight it because the city actually owns the property up to the front porch. Have you heard of this before? (PS it’s $3000 to fix!).”

38 Comment

  • The area is called “Parking” but I think that you still have to maintain it…while you are limited with what you can do with it because it is considered public space.

    And I think in many places it can in fact include your front porch!

    As far as a water leak, I think I would talk to DC Water depending on what side of the meter it is on. They are very responsive on twitter – @dcwater

  • Take a look at your plat… you should have gotten one at closing. Not to be mean, but I find it mind boggling that homeowners have no idea where their property lines lie, or even where to find that information.

    • yes, you’re smarter than the rest of us. good job!

      • Had you purchased a row house, you might know how odd it would seem that someone didn’t realize their property line was 20 feet back from where they thought it was. It’s not about being smart.

      • Do other people not look at what they’re signing when they purchase something for hundreds of thousands of dollars?

        • I agree,

          People apparently put more thought into the next iteration of the iphone that they are buying than into the actual house/property that they are going hundreds of thousands into debt buying. Property setbacks, lot limits,? Psssshaw…who cares. That is until the big bad water authority won’t give you something for free.

          They give you plats at settlement, most settlement companies give you working copies prior to settlement.

          Not knowing where your property line is, is like not knowing if the car you bought takes gas or diesel.

          • wait. what? cars take one or the other? oh shit.

          • They give you a diagram of your property… but it also bears a disclaimer with something like “Not to be used for legal purposes.”

            I looked very carefully at the diagram and it still wasn’t clear, so I sympathize with the OP.

          • You laugh, but I dated a girl for a few months who had to get out of her car, pop the gas cap and read the label that told her what kind of fuel to put in her car because when she first bought herself a brand new passat, she filled it with diesel the first time she filled it up.


      • I agree it makes total sense to look at your plat but I did not do so until the actual closing date itself. If, like me, you bought during the batshit crazy days of the housing market in 2003 and 2004, you were lucky if you got the whole settlement package together much more than five minutes before closing.

        • Yeah, I didn’t get the plat until settlement, but I made sure we took our time going through settlement and asked lots of questions, so that’s how I found out the land in front of the house wasn’t mine.

    • You beat me to this. It’s a little odd the OP purchased a house without seeing a plat.

      The city does, in fact, own that land, but they put it “under the immediate care and keeping of the owners or occupants of the premises abutting on the public parking” (DC Municipal Regulations Title 24, par.102.1).

  • We live in a row house and had a problem with the pipe that connects our house to the main out under the sidewalk or street. The city came and dug up our front yard and repaired it because it was technically city property, so yes, you should definitely fight this. (The city did not, however, pay for the landscaping we had to do when they were finished!)

    • not quite.

      if the problem is at the connection, the utility company ( not the city) will repair it. if it is on the street side of the connection they will fix it. if it is on your side of the connection they won’t.

  • It depends on where you live. The general rule is that south of Florida (i.e., the original L’Enfant city), the city owns your yard, or at least part of it. North of Florida, you own your yard. As others have pointed out, check your plat. That will tell you.

  • Unfortunately, in most cases a real property owner in the District of Columbia is responsible for the plumbing beyond the water meter, whether it runs underneath the swale, sidewalk, right of way, public or private property.

    You might save on some of the expense by doing the digging yourself or hiring somebody to excavate and then have plumber do his work, usually a one inch copper pipe.

    To prevent from happening again, have one single solid pipe from the meter running into your house with no couplings or breaks.

    Do not cover the new work done until you have a final inspection and save it.

  • Kenyon Dweller’s basically right, but there are always exceptions. A bunch of streets got built much narrower than originally laid out, and homeowners were allowed de facto easements for front yards. This is more common in the older parts of the city, but it’s true on certain blocks in other neighborhoods as well.

    The real confusing part is when the opposite is true. My block was originally designed to have a bottleneck at the end but it wound up being built without one. As a result, I and about 10 other homeowners on our block technically own the sidewalk and maybe small sliver of the street (11′ from the front of the house, but I haven’t bothered to measure). Not that we can do anything with it.

    Although I have been thinking about seeing how that affects DC’s drinking in public laws…

  • This article describes how all this started in the old city.

  • Here’s a quick summary of who may own that space in front of your house. The short answer is, you need to look at your plat. The long answer it . . . 1) it could be public space, 2) it could be your property but have a building restriction line, or 3) your house may have been built behind the property line and its just your property. Some background on this . . if it is public space or private property within a building restriction line, it is considered part of the District’s park and open space system – this is why it’s called “parking” – when the term was coined in 1870 there was little concern about the term being confused with car parking. Many of the District’s public space regulations reflect that this is park space. Unlike a traditional parks owned and maintained by DPR or NPS, this park area is regulated and maintained by the adjacent property owner. Public parking was first established in 1870 by Congress by something called the Parking Act. It gave the District the authority to set aside part of the street right-of-way as parkland. Building restriction lines came into being in 1900. They were used to help implement the Highway Plan (adopted in 1893 to guide the growth of the city in areas beyond the L’Enfant Plan). To extend the park-like character of the city into the then suburbs, public space regulations were applied to this building restriction area as well.

    A comprehensive guide to many of the public space regulations that protect public space as part of the city’s park system can be found here:

    • great answer! thanks for the info. gives whole new meaning to “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot”

    • Chris – Are all restrictions lines and associated areas treated similarly today? Some building restriction lines resulted from covenants and predate 1900. The Columbia Heights subdivision (1881) had one, so that might apply to KenyonDweller’s property. These were private perpetual agreements and so I’d think that they create a privately owned front yard all the way up to wherever the right-of-way was designated on the original subdivision plat.

      • I would assume building restriction lines established prior to 1900 were done voluntarily by developers. The earliest references to building restriction lines that were initiated as part of implementing the 1893 highway plan would have been in 1900 as far as I can tell. That is the first time Congress passed legislation allowing the District to establish them. In 1900 establishing a building restriction line on a street required all of the property owners to voluntarily agree to establish a building line. This apparently was difficult to do because between 1900 and 1910 Congress passes other legislation several times giving the District increasing authority to establish them even when property owners didn’t want to. Building restriction lines made it easier and less expensive to implement the Highway Plan that, among other things, required a minimum 90′ width for streets. For example property owners wouldn’t have to give us as much land for a street – a 60′ roadway with 15′ building restriction lines on either side would add up to 90′. There were other planning ideas included with the Highway Plan and building restriction lines that resulted in varying widths of streets. An example of this would be Blagden Avenue, NW, that has a total width of 110′, wider then most streets – a 70′ street with 20′ building restriction lines on either side. In this case, Blagden Avenue was considered an entrance to Rock Creek Park, and the extra width and “park land” on either side of the road was intended to create more of a park-like character.

        I’m guessing on this, but presumably the part of the city with the most irregularities regarding front yards and property ownership would loosely be Columbia Heights – between Florida Avenue, Spring Street, Rock Creek Park, and North Capital Street. This area developed between the time when the L’Enfant Plan was built out but before the Highway Plan was put into effect. This is of course a generalization. Early suburbs like LeDroit Park, Uniontown (Anacostia), and Brookland are also likely in this category.

  • If you cannot find your plat/survey call the company you closed with. The closing company will either have your plat on file or be able to tell you who made the plat and said company will have your plat. If all else fails you can go down to the city for your plat. Good Luck!!

  • My daddy paid for my front yard!

  • My dining room/bay window area is in “parking”

    • This may also be interesting to folks. Projections were first allowed in 1871 when Congress passed legislation allowing the District to permit them into public space. The District has a sophisticated system to determine how much and what kind of projections are allowed on any given street based on the zoning, width of the street, and whether or not the street has “parking”. Here’s a handy table to determine how much of a building projection you are allowed for your property (or to determine if a projection you have is in compliance with current regulations). These projection regulations are part of the construction code (DCMR Title 12) and also apply to building restriction areas.

  • The city owns not only our yard but our bay window…

  • go here and plug in your address(must use explorer). it will show you your lot line relative to your building. not as reliable as a plat but will definitely answer the OP’s question.

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