What Every Homeowner Should Know About the Right-Of-Way

Right-of-way means your local government can dig and remove several feet of your yard to expand a road or create a sidewalk as well any other reasons deemed necessary. (Photo: Tom Oder)

A neighbor who travels frequently came home from a trip to find that work on a much-anticipated sidewalk had begun while he was away. A contractor using heavy machinery had cleared a path eight-feet wide from the curb into his yard. As part of that work, some of the PVC pipe for his sprinkler system had been sliced and several sprinkler heads were nowhere to be found. It looked like the PVC pipe had been sliced by the heavy scoop on a mini-excavator.

But none of that was as upsetting as his missing hostas.

As hostas go, these weren't botanically significant. They weren't a rare species or a hard-to-find collector's item. But they were special. They were from his mother's garden. She passed away in 2013, and he looked forward to them emerging each spring because they reminded him of her.

Nobody had done anything wrong. The contractor's excavation work for the sidewalk was within the right-of-way of the city of Brookhaven, a newly formed municipality in a close-in northern suburb of Atlanta, and the contractor and city had followed the city's right-of-way policies. In fact, elected and city officials said the city had made an effort to do more than what the policies stipulate. Hari Karikaran, director of public works, attempted to personally meet with homeowners two weeks before construction began. In addition, contractor Jacob Trites of Solid Scapes of Lavonia, Georgia, met with some property owners and left door handle signs for the homeowners who weren't available to meet.

Most local governments are unlikely to go to these lengths to notify you. So, it helps to know who your representative is on your local city council and to have their contact information. Be aware, though, that while elected officials can be advocates for your concerns, that advocacy is probably limited; they're the policy makers, which means they're likely prohibited from directing municipal staff or being a spokesperson for the municipality.

You may want to ask your city council exactly what rights (if any) you have as a homeowner regarding right-of-way laws. For example, are they required to give advance notice to homeowners of non-emergency, scheduled work? (And if so how far in advance? Also, how will they disseminate that information (letter, email, text, personal visit or door hanger)?

In my neighbor's case, even though his neighborhood received notices, he was left wondering who is financially responsible for the repairs to his sprinkler system.

Who will restore your lawn?

sidewalk work
Keep in mind that if the area is reseeded or resodded, the replacements may not be the same type of grass as the rest of your lawn. (Photo: Tom Oder)

Even with the best efforts and intentions, and even when the work is for a project property owners requested — which it was in this case — it's jarring to see someone operating a mini-excavator digging up your carefully landscaped and maintained front yard, especially one in which you have a considerable financial or emotional investment.

You may want to ask if the contractor or local municipality will restore the property to the way it was before the work began.

For instance, if you have a particular kind of grass, are they required to replace displaced grass with the same kind of grass so the grass you install matches the established grass? If not, can you replace grass or sod they install with grass or sod of your choosing? Will they replace sprinkler heads or a damaged mailbox? Will they reimburse you or replant trees that they may have to cut down?

Most people take a "Nah, this won't happen to me!" approach to this kind of scenario.

But it just might.

And because it might, it's worth your while to know where municipal and utility company rights-of-way are on your property. This is especially true because of something most homeowners may not know: the right-of-way belongs to the government and your front yard technically ends at the point where the right of way begins — even though you maintain the right-of-way at your own cost.

Here are some other rights-of-way questions to ask municipalities and utilities so you can manage expectations if the unexpected dig — or even an expected dig with unintended consequences — happens to you.

  • If I strip out sod in advance of the work, will you install the sod I stripped out or do I have to put it back?
  • If the work damages utility lines coming into the house, who is responsible for scheduling and paying for repairs?
  • If the contractor damages the driveway or deems that a portion of the driveway needs to be replaced, what's the procedure to notify the homeowner when the work will be done? Who is responsible financially for the work?
  • Will the city or utility provide a portable toilet so workers don't go behind bushes and use private property as an outdoor restroom?
  • If the work is on a busy street, is the contractor required to provide flaggers for traffic control?
  • Is there anything I haven't asked about understanding your right-of-way on my property that is important for me to know to avoid misunderstandings?
  • Will the city or utility clean up dirt and gravel that gathers on the street and will be carried onto adjoining streets so that this debris won't slide into storm drains and be carried to environmentally sensitive creeks and streams?