“as predicted, neighbor is not interested in compromise”

Photo by PoPville flickr user random lady

“Dear PoPville,

In front of our house, there is a sidewalk curb space where there used to be a tree. For the last several years, a number of people (including me) have been using this space for X purpose. A few days ago, a neighbor commandeered the space for Y purpose – and built something on the space so that it can no longer be used for X purpose. (I’m intentionally being vague here, so this doesn’t devolve into a debate about everyone’s subjective opinions on bike racks, vegetable gardens, dogs, flowers, sculpture, etc.) I thought that sidewalk curb spaces were city property, and that none of us had any more of a right to that space than anyone else. On this basis, I’m considering ever so politely “adjusting” what neighbor built so that the cutout can continue to be used for X purpose. (I’m trying diplomatic channels first, but I have little hope of success based on prior experience with neighbor). What is the rule here? Are curb spaces owned by the city, or by the owner of the property they are in front of? What if the space is in front of more than one property?

Update – as predicted, neighbor is not interested in compromise. I suggested an alternative that would have allowed the sidewalk cutout to be used for both X and Y purpose. Neighbor responded with a lengthy justification of Y purpose as the only “proper” purpose, and topped that off by threatening to take legal action against anyone who disturbs what neighbor built on the space.”

107 Comment

  • No idea what you are talking about

  • Our understanding is that a city public space permit would be required. Could you check with the city to see if the use is properly permitted?

  • The x and y of this is super annoying.

    • Wow. I really wasn’t expecting such a negative response. Thanks to the people below who provided helpful answers.
      I didn’t specify X/Y because I didn’t want a debate about which use is “better.” My question is, given that we all have different opinions on what the “best” use would be, who gets to decide?
      If you must know:
      X = accessing the passenger sides of parked cars & walking dogs
      Y = flower boxes, 20 inches high & enclosed on 4 sides, 6 inches from the curb. And not just 1 tree box – 7 or so tree boxes in a row, all the way down the block.

      • Yeah, those flower boxes don’t meet the criteria — they’re too tall, and they’d need to be open on the street side. “For the safety of people exiting vehicles, borders should not be placed on the curbside of the tree space and should be between 4 and 12 inches in height.”
        IMO, your neighbor has a lot of nerve to be putting a flower box in someone else’s treebox area. I admit that I’ve done some minor planting in adjacent neighbors’ treebox areas… but only because it was untended weeds otherwise. I can’t imagine putting an actual structure in someone else’s treebox without express permission.

        • It is in front of a multi-unit building.

        • I was thinking about this some more and realized that raised beds of soil wouldn’t meet DDOT standards, no matter what their dimensions:
          “The grade of the tree space shall not be altered in conjunction with a beautification effort, except
          with mulch.”

      • The upshot is “Your house, your treebox area.” YOU get to decide (subject to city regulations) what goes into your treebox. Your neigbor needs to content himself with his own treebox area.

      • The formulation is annoying and, as commenters speculated, prevented helpful advice. In this case the latter use (planters over 12 in) is specifically prohibited by statute. Had you just included this information from the beginning things would have been much clearer.

        • Have you read the comments to posts that talk about dogs? Devolves into a silly war between dog lovers/haters. My guess is that if I’d included the information, the result would have been that the same people who delighted below in criticizing how I asked the question would have just posted unhelpful comments like “flowers are better than dog poop” and “but my dog is nice,” and the same people who actually tried to answer below would have done so.
          My question was, what is the general rule? Not, how would the rule apply here? I’m truly confused about why that invoked such a negative response in some.

          • There is no “general rule.” There are specific rules. We call them “laws” and “regulations,” and in this case, they are in your favor.

  • I understand why you’re being vague but this is so vague that it’s incomprehensible. It’s possible that your neighbor is a jackass. It’s just as likely that you are the jackass. Who can say?

  • The neighbor directly in front of the tree box is responsible for tending after said tree box.

  • This post makes no sense without specifics.

  • Neighbor threatened to sue because they took over a public space. Yea, move it over and keep moving. If they sue, oh well. As long as it’s not damaged, you should be fine.

  • This DDOT publication contains a good summary of the regulations for this strip of grass: http://ddot.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ddot/publication/attachments/ddot_public_realm_design_manual_2011_0.pdf
    See p. 45 (or 3-20, depending on your browser.

  • Curb/treebox areas are city property, but are supposed to be maintained by the owner of the property they’re in front of.
    If the space is in front of your house, then it’s primarily your call as to what to do with it.
    However, there are regulations on what exactly can be put in treebox areas (like, where fence-type borders are allowed, to what height, etc.). If there “used to” be a tree there (what happened to it?), odds are that the city has designated it as a past tree location and might be eyeing it for a future tree location. In that case I don’t think you get to overrule the city and put a bike rack/vegetable garden/whatever in place of a tree.
    You ask, “What if the space is in front of more than one property?” As far as I’m aware, your next-door neighbors have the same say over the treebox areas in front of their properties as you do in front of yours.

    • I think this is the key point. Whose house is it in front of? If it’s yours, then you should do whatever you want and tell your neighbor to f*(k off. If it’s in front of your neighbor’s house, then you should step back and let them do what they want. If it’s in front of another neighbor’s house, then you all should ask them what they’d like to do. This is easy.

  • I’m pretty sure the rule is that the owner/resident is responsible for maintaining that area that is in front of their house even though it is technically city property. So if neighbor wants to use the part of it in front of their house for Y then that is their right/responsibility. They can agree to let you use it for X but if they want it for Y then you need to say “fair enough” and walk away.

  • Since this is so vague as to be useless, we should have some fun in the comments and guess what we think X and Y are. I’m betting X is a pet relief area and Y is a garden.

    • Tsar of Truxton

      Do you “build” a garden though? I feel like Y has to be bike rack or sculpture based on the options provided that could be built (and disturbed). But then you read on, and it talks about a “purpose” for the area, which seems more like garden, but could still be bike rack. I’ve never heard of someone building a personal bike rack though (obviously stores do it). In conclusion, I still have no clue what is happening here.

      • It could be a garden if what they “built” is the little 5″ fencing around the edges. That tracks with him wanting to cut into it so he can still lock his bike to the tree (my guess).

      • Sorry for being vague. Y = flower box with 4 sides, roughly 20 inches high.

    • I Dont Get It

      X = Mini Pizzeria that only dispenses Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza. Y = Dog Park

      • Lolz. Yup, this seems like the most likely scenario here.

      • You’re going to compare me to chicken bacon pizza dude? Ouch.
        Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and dig my own grave in one of these tree boxes.

        • I don’t think IDGI is comparing you to Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza dude (though I understand why that would make someone flinch).

  • From DDOT:
    Tree box beautification that conforms to the standards below
    and is performed by the adjacent property owner or tenant does not require a public space permit
    (DCMR 24-109.3).
    The beautification of a tree box area shall:
    • Be contained within the tree box area and not extend over the curb or the sidewalk (DEM-47.5.2);
    • Maintain a clear distance of 3 feet from a crosswalk or paved bus stop landing, 6 feet from
    an entrance to an alley or street corner, and 4 feet from a parking meter or fire hydrant
    The growing of vegetables in a tree box area is prohibited (DCMR 24-109.11).
    When additional landscaping in tree boxes is requested, the UFA will work with an applicant to
    develop plans that are appropriate for the size, location, and health of nearby street trees.

    Borders include low fencing or curbs around tree box areas. For the safety of people exiting
    vehicles, borders should not be placed on the curbside of the tree space and should be between 4
    and 12 inches in height. Wickets and other tripping hazards are strictly prohibited (DCMR 24-109.9
    and DEM-47.5.3).
    The grade of the tree space shall not be altered in conjunction with a beautification effort, except
    with mulch. The use of gravel as a ground cover is prohibited (DCMR 24-109.10).
    (DCMR 24-109.7 and 24-109.8);
    • Maintain at least 6 feet separation from adjacent beautified areas (DCMR 24-109.7 and 24-109.8);
    • Include plants that have a shallow root system and that grow less than 18 inches in height
    (DCMR 24-109.11 and DEM-47.5.2); and,
    • Be planted a minimum of 2 feet from the root flare (crown) of the street tree in order to protect
    feeder and anchor roots from damage.

    • This is super helpful, and makes me realize that about 80 percent of tree boxes are out of compliance. I have def. hit my car door on street side fencing several times. I also def. see significant amounts of veggies and gravel in tree boxes.

  • Nobody is going to give you a useful opinion unless you say what X and Y purpose are. This makes no sense.

  • Ashy Oldlady

    I’m going to suggest that the space be used for both x and z purposes.

    • Oh god, why does EVERY SINGLE popville post have to devolve into someone pushing their Z-purpose agenda? Take your Z and go back to Maryland.

    • That was my suggestion to neighbor: Plant the 1/2 of the tree box that is away from the curb with flowers (which is what neighbor wants), leave the side closest to the street open (instead of what is now a 20 inch tall barrier) so that folks can open car doors, and then just mulch the 1/2 closest to the street so people don’t have to trample flowers just to get in their cars.
      The response was to ask me why I hate flowers.

  • District law states that the public parking strip and tree box infront of a house are owned by the District. The same law also requires property owners to maintain the public space in front of their home or business in a clean and safe manner. I’ve find the DDOT Public Realm Design Manual to have a pretty easy guidance http://ddot.dc.gov/PublicRealmDesignManual. Section 4.2 outlines the laws for public space/ landscaping.

  • Is the tree box in front of your house, or your neighbor’s house? And did x purpose involve building something on the tree box?

    If x purpose is a vegetable garden, you are clearly in the wrong.

  • Everyone knows the only acceptable, and lawful, use of that space is z.

  • Avoid the drama and just call and ask the city when a new tree will be planted.

  • Odds are great that X or Y involves dog shit in some capacity. That seems to be what people in this city are largely concerned with when it comes to usage of public space.

    Otherwise my guesses are:
    x = bike and/or scooter parking
    y = Little Free Library

    • I agree with your first guess:
      X = Place to let dogs go the bathroom.
      Y = Planted flowers and put a please curb your dog sign up.

      • Yep, it’s definitely this.

      • Sort of.
        X includes place for dogs to “go” – but probably more importantly, ability to open car doors / access passenger side of cars parked on street.
        Y involves flowers – but with a 20 inch high barrier, enclosed on 4 sides, set about 6 inches off from the curb.

    • I Dont Get It

      Or is Y Little Free Popup library?

  • Now that the actual questions have been answered, can we please learn what x & y are?

  • This story is a lot more interesting if you read X as “dog bidet” and Y as “pop-up colon hydrotherapy clinic.”

  • since the OP doesn’t want to define X or Y, this is actually just about him/her lacking the forethought to ‘claim’ the land first and now being sad about it.

    kudos to the neighbor for the initiative shown in deciding once and for all that Y is the right and proper use of the land and threatening suit.

    OP wants the argument to be as reductive (lacking specifics) as possible, probably because X idea is wrong and/or unpopular.

    • ah

      If OP is taken as honest, it’s about a non-exclusive use (X, which may allow Y) versus an exclusive use (Y, which prevents X).

      So OP using space for X doesn’t prevent it from also being used for Y, but Y prevents it from being used for X. Not sure how OP was supposed to claim that space first, unless it was to put up a fence with a sign that says “pet relief area only”

    • More that X involves a “hot button” topic – see above.

  • Pretty sure that anything from your fence line out is city property. Report it on the 311 app.

    • Actually anything from your property line out is public property. Sometimes the property line starts at your house edge some times it starts at your fence line. Many houses have fenced in front yard area but it is actually public property.

  • justinbc

    Just accidentally park there and problem solved.

  • I think the key here is “In front of our house…”

    Therefore, the neighbor (whose house is not directly adjacent to the curb space) is in the wrong. Therefore, I think the OP has the right to remove whatever the neighbor has put there (being careful not to ruin it) and place it in the neighbor’s yard. Of course, this also runs the risk of starting a border war with the neighbor, which may or may not be worth it, depending on what x and y are.

    The only further complication I can see is if this is a multi-unit building (i.e. a converted row house with 3 or 4 units), then both parties would have a say in how the curb space in maintained (unless the lease says otherwise).

    • +1
      I think this sounds like a multi-unit housing issue. There’s no clear rule on who gets to decide what to do with the space, if multiple parties have valid claims to plot. OP, can you confirm if this is the issue? This is the only way the issue could be so fraught. Perhaps a conflict between the basement tenant and the upper house tenant?
      If this is an issue with SFHs, then its up to the home owner of the property to do whatever they want with the space (within the regulations). The property lines are clear – if it’s in front of your house, you control the space.

    • Confirmed: Multi-unit, mixed use.

  • X isn’t permitted.
    Y requires justification.

  • A lot of people keep quoting regulations about tree boxes. But there is no confirmation this was an actual tree box and not just a tree. I do not have a tree box in front of my house, but do have a tree. I do zero maintenance to it. My neighbor has a tree box and maintains a small flower bed around it. I think if the regulations mention specifically tree bed, that might not be relevant here. The regulations for the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street may be more relevant. Either way, the city is pretty specific about what the space can be used for.

    I say whoever lives in front of the space gets to decide, so long as their decision is within the regulations. If it is not, I’d say the other person does not have the right to touch it at all, but should contact the city to complain. If it is within regulations, well then matter settled. Your neighbor doesn’t get to put stuff in front of you house in the public space. Period.

    If it straddles both properties, well good luck with that. I’d say whomever wants to do something allowed under the regs is the winner there. If both are allowed, first come first serve unless you want a neighborhood brawl.

    • “The regulations for the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street may be more relevant.” As far as I’m aware, that area is called the “treebox area” whether there’s a tree in it or not, and whether it’s (mostly) continuous dirt/grass/plantings/tree or whether it’s mostly sidewalk.

  • What x and y are is very predictable by neighborhood. In park view for example, it’s dog park vs affordable housing.

    • The neighbors in Park View are building their own affordable housing in the strip between the sidewalk and the road? Man, it’s really getting desperate out there.

      • janie4

        It’s affordable housing for gnomes. Since they’re only three inches high, there’s room for a small 4-unit apartment building. No pop-up, though.

  • This whole X- and Y- thing is making me laugh. Thanks you all – made my day!

  • I would suggest going with the x option. However you might want to check in with the Z law. If that’s the case, you should check out y.

  • The fact that the OP asked what happens if the area is in front of more than one house suggests that this area is, in fact, in front of both of their houses. In that case, I assume the rule is that each party is “responsible” for the portion of the area in front of their property. It sounds like the OP and the neighbor have each taken turns using the entire area.
    There are some battles that are not worth fighting and tackling someone who has gone to the trouble of “building” something in a public space is one of those battles. If it bothers the OP that much, he or she should call the City and report the misuse of the space (if it is being misused), and get them to plant another tree there.

    • It is in front of a multi-unit building. And, unfortunately, it isn’t just one – its 7 or so, all the way down the block. Agree re: some battles not worth fighting. If it was 1, I’d just avoid it. But its the whole side of the street.

  • Not sure if this is X, but I’m starting to hate those recycled tire flower boxes in Petworth.
    Sure, when the neighborhood was 50% abandoned properties they beautified it, but now they look like trash. It doesn’t help that most are poorly maintained. I really wish the city would just come by and pick them up on the whole block.

    • That is actually pretty dead on – but in reverse. Y = 20 inch high flower boxes, enclosed on 4 sides, that make it impossible to open a car door if you park on street.

  • “Neighbor responded with a lengthy justification of Y purpose as the only ‘proper’ purpose” — I’m wondering whether the OP’s language about the neighbor “building” Y was actually about the neighbor planting a tree. Hard to imagine what other purpose someone could argue was the ONLY proper purpose for a treebox area.

  • As other readers say – the X and Y actually make a huge difference.

    This resource, while old and specific to Capitol Hill might be useful.


    • Thank you. I didn’t know what the rule was (or if there was a rule). X/Y disclosed above. And lucky me! Y is prohibited.

  • So OK now that it’s been ascertained that y is not permitted, what are you going to do?

    • +1
      I’d print out a copy of the regs and give them to the offending party. Give them a week to rectify the issue. If they don’t do anything, just pull up the fences and dump them. They have zero recourse.

    • Good question. Someone over the weekend beat me to the punch – well, sort of. The barrier next to the curb has been partially torn down – although not thrown away; its just laying on the sidewalk. Wasn’t me, but I”m sure I’ll get blamed since I’m the one who tried to address directly. I didn’t look this morning, but my guess is that a lot of top soil got washed away in the rain. The whole thing looks kind of junky now. I plan to give it a week or so, and if its not cleaned up, I’ll take it upon myself to perform a neighborhood service.

      • Not sure if you saw my comment from earlier today — I was realizing that raised beds of soil wouldn’t meet DDOT standards, no matter what their dimensions: “The grade of the tree space shall not be altered in conjunction with a beautification effort, except with mulch.”
        IMO, it would probably be better to ask the neighbor to dismantle the raised beds, rather than doing it yourself — it seems like that could only up the ante conflict-wise.

        • Agree re: better to not up the ante conflict-wise. (That noise you hear is my wife shouting Hallelujah!)
          I did see your post above. I want to say thank you, textdoc. You have been very helpful and have provided several constructive comments. Much appreciated.

      • Realize it’s a long shot, but hey, isn’t DDOT responsible for enforcing its regulations? Why not call them and either (a) have them remove the offending tree boxes or (b) issue an order to the original builder to take them down? I wouldn’t tempt fate by ripping these things out yourself, not for fear of a frivolous lawsuit, but out of concern that something more dramatic would ensue (e.g., assault).

  • How about putting a nice tree in the tree box? That benefits everyone near and far. Call 311.

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