Dear PoPville – Light Pole Blocking Access to Property – Who Should We Contact?

Dear PoPville,

We recently bought a place in the H street area, and have a problem with a light pole blocking access to our backyard. The alley light pole is located directly behind our house and prevents us from fully opening our back gate to achieve full access to the rear of our property. We cannot use the area for parking or to stage any sort of construction materials, for future repairs or upgrades to our property. Development in the area has picked up rapidly in the past year and street parking has become very limited, prompting our desire to utilize the space and lessen the burden on the already limited street parking in the neighborhood.

The alley light pole is DC Department of Transportation (DCDOT) property and they have agreed to allow for the relocation of the pole, but are unwilling to share in the financial responsibility of the process. As this is a public space obstruction to our private property, do you or your readers believe the financial burden for relocation of the pole remains with the DCDOT, or with us as the property owners?

We had been working with DDOT to try and reconcile this issue, but they recently sent us a letter that formally denied our petition. We’ve considered contacting our councilmember (Tommy Wells), but do you have any recommendations for who to contact, or how to deal with this issue?

We offered to agree to some compromise on financial burden and even suggested programs for DCDOT to budget for the poles relocation (replace the pole under the Districts LED alley light pole project). We believe that the pole is in such a state of disrepair that DCDOT is using this opportunity to force a district homeowner to shoulder the financial burden of replacing a piece of their failing infrastructure.

While we were obviously aware of the problem when we bought the place, nothing in the property deed mentioned the allowance of a negative easement. We made the assumption that we could work with the city to deal with it, either through joint funding or, at the very least, a payment plan. What ended up happening is that they (DCDOT) were very responsive and got someone out there right away to look at it, never mentioned costs, and at the point of scheduling the move (for the next day) informed us that it would cost us $12,000. They never gave us the opportunity to get private estimates. We submitted a letter challenging the cost, which was then transferred to their legal department where it sat for 9 months and then they finally denied our petition.

Any advice or recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

43 Comment

  • Definitely contact your council member. That is often the only way to cut through red tape in this city.

    The gate doesn’t look new. Do you know if it was there when the post was installed? If it was, then I definitely think the city should bear the cost.

  • While I am sympathetic to your plight, I don’t know why it would be the City’s responsibility to pay for it since the benefit will go strictly to you as a private property owner. I also am not sure the city would agree to let somebody else move it. Considering a parking spot would probably be worth more than 12k to you, I say come up with the money somehow before the City simply becomes unwilling to move it. Strike while the iron is hot.

    Also, what is your sense of a negative easement? If it is the alley, my guess is it is not on your property and not an easement. The fact that it blocks access to your property for parking seems irrelelvant to me.

    • I’m sorry, but I agree with this. If DDOT were to pay to move the pole, it’s essentially taxpayers, or the rest of us paying for something that only benefits you. And if they started paying for all of these, it would add up quickly. The money would have to come out of the budget somewhere so where would it come from? Fixing potholes and other services?

    • thebear

      The city goofs and the city should make things right. Had the OP erected a fence that blocked the city’s access, the OP would have to remedy it at their own expense. City puts in a lamp post that blocks someone’s access to their property, then city needs to move it because they screwed up the placement in the first place. It doesn’t matter how long ago they did it, especially if there is nothing in the deed that reflects such an easement.

      • Aww, you think the law treats the government and private individuals as equals. Cute.

      • “As this is a public space obstruction to our private property, do you or your readers believe the financial burden for relocation of the pole remains with the DCDOT, or with us as the property owners?”

        You as the property owners. How would moving the pole benefit anyone other than you? You may free up one street parking space, but you would disproportionately gain value from that compared to the city.

        The pole, according to you, is in disrepair (as in, old), and the fence looks to be roughly 3-5 years old. There is grass beyond the fence, so the pole blocking a curb cutout is highly unlikely.

        As you say, development has really picked up in the area. Part of the cost of developing the parking spots you would like to develop is to move the pole, and the city shouldn’t have to pay for your convenience.

    • The city has to give you reasonable access to your property. The city does not have to ensure you can park two cars in your backyard.

      You bought this property knowing full well the pole was there. If you want it moved, it should be your cost, not the cost of the city (ie taxpayer).

      Enough said.

      • Exactly. You bought it in this condition so you accepted the condition. This question should have been figured out before you closed. If you discussed this plan with your realtor, your realtor failed.

  • DCDOT imperiling your safety? How would fire and rescue have clear and appropriate access? Really really negligent behavior on their part

    • ah

      Firemen would make very quick work of that fence if they needed access to the back of the house for hoses. They wouldn’t drive the truck in there even without the pole.

    • Fire trucks can’t get in most of the alleys anyway, the trucks can’t make the turns and the alleys are too narrow. When there have been fires in my alley (stolen cars set on fire) the firemen carry the hose from the truck stopped on the main street, and they are very fast.

  • Perhaps a letter from a lawyer would give the city some incentive. The letter may cost a few hundred, but it could do the trick.

    • On what grounds exactly? They say they bought the house knowing full well the light post was there. The light post is very definitely on public space and I would wager that you don’t have any right in the city to have access to park a car. I will use a curb cut as an example. Many many folks could put parking in their places if they could get a curb cut but curb cuts are frequently denied.

  • Pay the $12K and move the pole. That’s a great deal for a parking space.

    Since you knew about this when you bought the place I would assume that your purchase price was lower because the house did not have a parking space.

    • ah

      I don’t think that it matters that this was there when they bought it because maybe the previous owner objected.

      What does matter is whether the city located the pole in an unreasonable manner. Whether the gate was already there is relevant, and same for a curbcut. But maybe the power connections have been there for decades and the pole never interfered with anything meaningful until now.

      But unless the OP has some way to prove that DDOT was unreasonable in locating the pole where it is, better to save the legal fees and spend it on relocation costs.

      BTW, if the pole is old and needs replacement, why not hold out until it’s replacement time and then have them move it–the cost should be cheaper.

    • Correct. End of Story.

      • Sorry – I replied to incorrect post. You should have paid $12,000 and moved it. It was there when you bought. I, nor anyone else should have to pay. DC has no obligation to ensure you have access beyond what you have. $12,000 is cheap for a parking space and you likely paid less for your house because it was there. You hit the lottery – quit whining.

  • Maybe I’m missing something, but nowhere does it say that this light pole is newly installed. You recently bought a place with a light pole behind the back of the property. Where is it stated that DDOT is required to provide unimpeded access to the back of your house at no cost to you? If they’re giving you an opportunity to do work in the public right-of-way for private benefit, which it sounds like they are, then you should take it.

    • This is what I say. If you fall down the city rabbit hole – which you might already have – you will never climb out. You should have jumped at the first opportunity to get this resolved at your own cost. Fighting it will get you no where because you have no grounds to do so.

  • Good Luck with that. The previous owners of your place more than likely put in a gate where the light pole is located. Unless there is a curb cut in place for access, it’s not permanent and the city isn’t going to spend the money to move a pole for your personal benefit.

  • My advice: give up or pay to move the pole. You’re not going to get anywhere with the city.

  • The reason your deed didn’t mention a negative easement is because, well, there is no negative easement. A negative easement obligates a property owner to refrain from doing something with the property. The most common examples occur in situation where the deed obligates a property owner not to build in such a way as to obstruct the view or access of another adjacent property. You don’t even have a regular old easement, which would give someone else access to, or rights over, your property. What you have is city property interfering with some access to your property, and because that interference was in existence at the time you purchased, well your generally speaking out of luck, especially because its not like the light post is really interfering with the normal use of said property. If I were you, I would thank my lucky stars DC is even willing to move it at all. They would legally be allowed to tell you to pound sand. If its that big a deal to you, I would pay for it before they change their mind.

  • I am not a lawyer and therefore unqualified to give legal advice. However, you might consider looking in to a prescriptive easement.

    Just as you can eventually gain possession of another person’s property if you take control of it for long enough (called adverse possession – but not effective against the government), you can also gain an easement over someone else’s property if you use it for long enough. These easements can be implied from prior use if you have previously used that space to enter and exit your property, but it doesn’t sound like that’s a go in your situation. You can also get an easement from necessity, if it’s the only way to enter your property. However, that’s usually understood pretty narrowly, and there has to be no conceivable way to otherwise get on to the property, so that’s also probably a loss in your situation.

    I definitely wouldn’t start with these remedies and would start by talking to your council member, but if you totally run out of options you might look in to what easement rights you might have. In response to Anon above, an easement is always on someone else’s property, not your own.

    My $0.02, but again, I’m not a lawyer, and this is just general advice not specific to your situation. You’d want to talk to someone qualified first.

    • You’re right. You shouldn’t give legal advice. First of all you can’t get a prescriptive easement over public roadways in D.C., or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. Second, even if you could, it takes 15 years to gain a perspective easement by adverse possession in D.C.

    • “In response to Anon above, an easement is always on someone else’s property, not your own.”

      This is like one of those crazy logic tricks like [the only sentence between these brackets is false]

      • okay, its not really similar to that.

        • Its not exactly like that, but, its still a dumb statement. An easement is not always on your property. I can have an easement over your property, or you can have an easement over mine. Saying an easement is always on your property just shows you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

    • 1L? Good luck on your property exam!

  • This is an exact repeat of a POP post from a couple years ago isn’t it? Why not link to that one so people can see the comments. Long story short you need to pay the 12k and stop whining. Tax payers should not have to incur the cost of you boosting the value of your home and adding a parking space via replacing perfectly functional infrastructure that was placed there well before you moved there.
    I would just be glad they are willing to work with you at all and 12k is not a bad price. You’ll be adding that much value to your home or more. If the district agreed to fund some of this project they would be setting a precedent for the hundreds of other houses with the same issue.

  • While we are at it — does anyone know how to get comcast/verizon to move cable and phone lines that hang from a pole, across a yard, to a neighbors house? In our case they are low, but there is no reason that they could not be raised on the neighbor’s house to be higher. Is there a centralized point or do we need to talk to the neighbors, comcast, and verizon separately?

    • I emailed my councilman (Graham) to complain about wires on a utility pole, and he got both comcast and verizon to come out and clean it up. It was actually really impressive.

  • Looks like you have 3/4 of a gate back there. One side seems easy to open out and the other not – right? Switch the pole side to open in… 3/4 is better than nothing.

    $12,000 seems like alot to gain access to such a small space.

  • I would advise paying to move the pole, and doing so quickly, before the city changes its mind. Just do it, do whatever it takes to pay for it, because the added value of having access to the yard and a parking space from the alley will more than compensate for the expenditure when it comes time to sell the house.

  • The previous owners of your place more than likely put in a gate where the light pole is located. Unless there is a curb cut in place for access, it’s not permanent and the city isn’t going to spend the money to move a pole for your personal benefit.

    I agree with this. The fence/gate is limiting access to yoru property much more than the lightpole, OP. Move that, and you’re golden.

  • You probably have no legal basis for the city to pay. As a taxpayer I’m glad they denied you. That said, you can always contact your council member, as others have suggested. Just because you don’t have a right to make the city pay doesn’t man you can’t try to use political pressure to get your desired outcome anyway. Others do it all the time in this city.

  • Your only chance is Tommy Wells (if you’re in the Ward 6 part of H Street). Otherwise, just pay it.

    Also, whoever built that gate had no idea what they were doing.

    • This lightpole was installed in clear violation of DC DOT’s own Design & Engineering guidelines.

      “All lighting in residential areas shall be installed to minimize light shining
      on or negatively affecting the neighboring residents. ”

      In addition the guide further states that light poles should be installed on property lines, not in the middle of a lot.

      If Tommy Wells is your only hope then you are screwed. His constitute services are terrible, unless you are one of his staff in which case he will be happy to help you get your hideous pop-up approved. Look at the one at 9th & I. NO way that architectural abortion would have been approved if it was not done for one of Well’s staff.

      • Looks like the vast majority of Ward 6 voters disagree with you. A couple of years ago, Wells’ office sent a crew from the urban forestry division to remove a dangerous limb on a neighbor’s private property (since they wouldn’t do it themselves, and it was hanging over the sidewalk).

        Wells’ office has always been incredibly helpful and responsive. Perhaps you had a bad experience because you were trying to get him to do something like remove a street lamp because it was shining on your house, or something equally idiotic?

        • Wells has been completely unresponsive to the residents of his ward outside of Capitol Hill proper. Anyone north of H street essentially does not have representation above the ANC level.

          Ask anyone on Abbey Place about how helpful Wells was with the Oasis Liquor issue. The neighborhood opposed the opening of the liquor store down the street from a school, so did the ANC rep, and the school, but Wells didn’t care and couldn’t be bothered. So even with a huge ground sell of support the store opened. Well now that store is an eye sore in the neighborhood and has bums loitering around it drunk at odd hours just like everyone feared.

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