Detroit sidewalk
A Detroit sidewalk of a certain age. Photo credit: Kate Abbey-Lambertz / Outlier Media

Last April a letter showed up in the mailboxes of numerous residents in northwest Detroit’s Bagley neighborhood saying the alleys behind their house could be converted into “public utility easements.” What that meant was that the city was relinquishing ownership of the alley behind their homes and giving it to residents. The letter went on to say that homeowners had the option to extend their fence lines but that their taxes and the drainage fees on their water bills would increase as well.

Easements are a legal right to use someone else’s property. Sounds simple, but it often isn’t. All kinds of property modifications — from big developments to small changes to a property line — require expensive surveys to determine the existence and extent of easements on the property. It can be a complicated topic, and we’re here to help with explanations for some of the most pressing issues around easements. 

Even that seemingly simple two-page letter to Bagley residents turned out to be contentious. It notified residents about an upcoming City Council hearing about the alleys in Bagley, making it unclear whether residents could opt out becoming owners of the alleys. 

As a resolution made its way through City Council, multiple residents commented publicly to express their disapproval, saying they were concerned about paying more, and that they wanted free use of the alleys without fences. One resident started a change.org petition to oppose the resolution. The petition garnered more than 200 signatures.

The resolution ultimately didn’t pass, but the anger highlighted the fact that the right to and responsibility for shared property is confusing and polarizing.

The city’s actions didn’t help the matter. Ron Brundidge, director for the city’s Department of Public Works, told Outlier by email that the letter and resolution were “a staff level mistake.”

“Vacating alleys is a process that should be initiated only by residents themselves through a petition process, not by the city,” Brundidge said. “However, in this instance city engineering staff did attempt to initiate the process by sending out letters to some residents informing them of a pilot project in the Bagley neighborhood. After community concern was raised, justifiably, we stopped the process.”

What is an easement?

In basic terms, an easement allows a person or group limited use of someone else’s property. Everywhere you look, you’ll find easements. 

They’re so common, it’s almost impossible to know how much land they actually cover. When we asked John Redash, a partner at Giffels-Webster, how much of the city’s land is made up of easements, he said, “I don’t even know how you would count that.” 

The most common types of easements are “right of ways,” which allow people to pass through property. Most sidewalks in front of homes or businesses are right of ways, as are alleys. 

Many easements are highly technical and specific. If someone needed to cross your property to access something they owned on the other side of it — like a well or dock — they might be able to acquire an easement. If two properties share a driveway but it actually belongs to one property, the other owner may need an easement to use it. 

Some easements remain attached to a property even after ownership changes hands. They can also be granted to individuals who use a property as if they had an easement, so long as they use it for long enough — even if it’s against the wishes of the owner. 

In the Bagley case, the alleys would still have been an easement, just one that gave utilities the ability to access infrastructure like power lines or trim trees on the property. 

Easements make things more accessible. 

Without easements, a downed power line on somebody’s property that knocked out power for an entire block might be inaccessible. Same for a water main break that causes flooding.

Some bigger public projects wouldn’t be possible, either. The Joe Louis Greenway, the 28-mile loop for pedestrians and cyclists, is making use of multiple easements along rail lines and streets. Same goes for the Riverwalk, which secured easements across properties owned by multiple entities, like the Department of Natural Resources, General Motors, the owners of 100 River Place and more. 

Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, said there is no fee associated with the easements, but the conservancy is responsible for the operations and maintenance of the space.

Easements can also be messy.

The consequences of easements aren’t well understood, except by lawyers, surveyors and other land use experts. Just try reading Michigan’s Land Division Act.

In Detroit, a dispute about an easement nearly derailed a deal that’s set to bring hundreds of apartments and a Target store to Midtown. A social club claimed it had an easement to use a parking lot once-owned by the Red Cross, even after the lot was bought by developers who had big plans for the site. A lawsuit held up the development for months, preventing the owners from getting a clean title and raising money. 

Understanding the full extent of easements around your house can be time-consuming and expensive, requiring surveys, title checks and lawyers that could ultimately cost thousands of dollars.

Am I responsible for city-owned land around my house?

Even though the sidewalk in front of your house is technically city-controlled land, homeowners are the ones responsible for keeping it in “clean, safe, and sanitary condition,” according to the city code

“The property owner is responsible for the area from the middle of the street to the middle of the alleyway, at the front and back of the property,” said Alvin Nunn, supervising building inspector for BSEED’s Property Maintenance Division.

That means you can be cited for trash, unplowed snow, unmowed lawns, dog feces, inoperable vehicles or other objects that are on public right of ways connected to your property. Here’s a list of everything homeowners need to maintain without incurring a blight violation. 

The city will take care of major obstructions.

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about things like fallen trees, potholes or downed power lines. Let the city know that there’s a major issue on your street or alley and they’ll take care of it. (Though the city has at times been inconsistent in its own duties and been sued by people injured by potholes.)

The easiest way to report an issue is through the Improve Detroit app. You can also contact the Department of Public Works by calling 313-224-3901.

Can I make changes to easements?

There are some things owners are allowed to do to easements that touch their personal property. Commercial owners can set up a street-level cafe, seating or a valet staging area. All building owners can at times temporarily block off part of the sidewalk or street if they’re doing construction that occupies the right of way. 

But all these things require a permit. Go here for more information about the types of easement modifications that are allowed and information about acquiring a permit. 

As in the case of Bagley, it’s also possible for the city to vacate an alley, allowing you to extend your fence line. While your bills will go up, you might prefer the extra yard space, as well as having more control over the area. First, you’ll need to get approval from your district manager and two-thirds of the people who share the alleyway. After your application is approved, you’ll need to conduct a survey to determine the exact borders of your property line. Redash at Giffels-Webster said this costs around $1,200 depending on the square footage of the property.

If you’re interested in alley vacation, you can learn more here or contact DPW at 313-224-3901. 

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.