You’ve Just Been Punked by the City of Washington D.C.

The city of Washington D.C. is ticketing people for parking in their own driveways!

It turns out that D.C. has an odd, obscure law stating that the land between the front of your house and the street, otherwise known as your driveway and front yard, falls under a bizarre classification known as “private property set aside for public use.” Essentially, though owners have to pay for its maintenance and upkeep (they can be fined if they don’t), it’s considered public property. Which apparently means that, technically, you can’t park your car on it. The city recently dusted off the law, and began writing parking tickets if any part of a resident’s car is parked between the front facade of their house and the street, even if it’s parked in the driveway.

When Anderson complained, one D.C. official told her that if she wanted, she could pay the city to lease the land between the front of her house and the street, which would allow her to park her car there legally. [emp added]

Upon hearing about this my spouse commented, “No wonder they don’t want citizens to have guns.”

Certainly sounds like a, “Woman! Fetch my Gun!” type of situation. 

If some city official had told me I could lease my own driveway back from the city, I would have been looking around for the hidden cameras. Seriously, this is so bad it’s funny. 

25 thoughts on “You’ve Just Been Punked by the City of Washington D.C.”

  1. Somebody has to fund those Washington parties!

    But, seriously – I was almost as shocked when was told, at the time I owned a Brooklyn townhouse, that it is my [unpaid] job, to pave, clean and otherwise maintain a 12’of public sidewalk that took part of my front property. And that if I didn’t shovel it on a snowfall day or immediately pick up October leaves as soon as they fell, I could be fined progressively. -But it is MINE, I cried, -I have a land survey to prove it! Can’t I do what I want and when I want on my own land?

  2. In Cincinnati they have, or at least used to have, a worse racket even than Tatyana describes. Certain kinds of maintenance you’re not allowed even to do yourself… you have to pay a city contractor to do it. “You’ve got a crack in your sidewalk, we have to fix that, here’s your bill.” I knew a guy at one point actually dodged through a loop hole by jack hammering half a double sidewalk and planting grass. He still had to pay for re-paving the other half though.

  3. Ah,but you voted for them,they would say, so they therefore have the right to do this.

    Enough of this ersatz democracy.Those who pay the taxes should have the right to sit on a panel and by majority vote overturn laws or remove anyone on the public teat,regardless of what courts think.Nor may any public money be disbursed against the will of the people.
    Power to the people!

  4. City and local governments view the people living in their districts as revenue-generators: no more, no less. Their main job as civil servants is to increase revenue, by hook, by crook, by lousy city ordinance. Of course, we let them do this……

  5. Older sections of Washington–like Capitol Hill and Georgetown–are a bit different from the rest of the world. If you bother to look at the deed for the property, and its plat, you discover that what you own is basically your building and the ground under it, not in front, in back, or around it.

    Now, you can argue that it’s unfair that you have to take care of property abutting your own which you do not own. Perhaps so. If that’s the case, then you probably should buy property in those parts of DC. But it’s not as though this is some sneaky-pete skulduggery on the part of DC government. It’s right there for all to discover before you buy the property and has been for something like 200 years.

    This law can have some beneficial effects, too. If, for instance, a water or sewer pipe breaks outside the walls of your deeded property, it’s up to the District to fix it, not the homeowner: he’s responsible only for what’s inside the walls and under his floor.

    It can be tedious, however, when a tree on district-owned property that surrounds your home is breaking a retaining wall (District-owned), but you can’t get permission to remove the tree and will have to pay to replace the retaining wall once it collapses. Life ain’t fair, I guess.

    But really, if you don’t like the property laws, then don’t buy property there. Or if you must, then get the law changed if you don’t like it.

    And yes, most DC gov’t employees are muttonheads.

  6. John Burgess,

    I think the problem is that people don’t actually know that the property laws in D.C. are so radically different from the rest of the country as well as common law. Anglospheric law is based on the concept of constancy enforced by precedence. Having a jurisdiction in which people suddenly do not own their own drive ways and front yards is such a radical change that it should be posted on signs. It also appears that the city never enforced its easement until recently raising the very real possibility that the law has lapsed due to a massive and constant lack of enforcement.

    More to the point, this reveals a mindset in which citizens are the property of the state to be milked for benefit of the political class.

  7. I am sorry to get technical, but I fear I must. Land, in Common Law countries, is never owned alodially. Personal property is owned alodially and is not subject to the regime of encumbrances to which land, or real property is subject.

    The existence of a municipal corporation is an encumbrance on the land within the corporate limits. Every lot owner is subject to the easements and ordinances in favor of the city.

    For example, the house I live in (owned by my wife, who magnanimously allows me to stay here), is on plated land within a municipality. She does not own the land within 80 feet of the center line of the street in front of the house. If the city abandons that street the right of way will revert to her, but she would loose a lot of value, because we would have to pack-out to get to food and supplies. so there is a trade off between ownership and value.

    Similarly, there is a local ordinance against allowing land to go to weeds. Not only is there an aesthetic value to the ordinance, but there are mutual benefits to house owners who have less weeding to do in their gardens.

    I have no familiarity with the Washington DC ordinance cited by the op, but it seems to me to be broadly similar to others I have heard of that restrict street or yard parking. Similar restrictions are also found in the CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) of suburban developments.

    To be fair, I have never heard of a justification for ordinances that claims a possessory interest in the affected land, but I think the theoretical justification is less important than the practical result.

    The punch line is that the city is an encumbrance on the land inside its boundaries. If you think that the services and proximity of the city don’t justify the weight of the encumbrance, sell your land and move.

  8. Robert,
    so you say the city owns the street right up to one’s entry door…fine. Let them, then, maintain it, clean it, seed-n-weed the lawns, rake the leaves and shovel the snow. Or pay for these services (provided to the city, a landowner) – to the people whose yards and driveways happened to be on that space. Then it’s a city’s responsibility, if a land goes to weed.

    In your defense of the municipalities you forgot one thing: homeowners already pay to the city for all the services it provides (or not) – it’s called property tax.

  9. Robert Schwartz,

    I understand the concept that one seldom owns one own land absolutely. For example, in Texas there are automatic easements on all bodies of water. You cannot fence within the bank of any river or creek even if your property line is established by the body of water. Neither can you claim trespass if someone enters your land by water. These are all traditional means of dealing with the realities poised by every shifting water and the historical uncertainties of water travel.

    Even more t0 the point, many older neighborhoods still have a patch of lawn between the sidewalk and the street. Technically, the sidewalk to the street sets in an easement and the homeowner can’t do anything that would block the sidewalk.

    Other restriction require you to maintain your property in a safe manner that the property and safety of others is not threatened. For example, the restriction against weeds is not for atheistic reasons but prevent the spread of rats.

    However, I am at a lost to think of any circumstance in common law that (1) defines as public space what is obviously a private space i.e. someone’s front yard. Does that mean that no one in Washington D.C. as the right to order someone off their front lawn? Do people have the same rights of passage through people’s front yard as they do the sidewalk? (2) Requires the property owner to maintain the public space at their own individual cost.

    I would be interested to learn the history of Washington D.C. laws. Knowing them, it dates back to some racial restriction.

    I suppose that my perceptions have been shaped by a life in the west in which public and private are fairly cleanly separated. The idea that you have to call a lawyer to know where to park your car in your own driveway is a completely alien thought to me.

  10. Tatyana: “so you say the city owns the street right up to one’s entry door…fine.”

    No, I did not say that. In our city, the city has a right of way that is 80 feet on either side of the centerline of the street. Our house is setback almost 120 feet from that, so we have a large front lawn. The street is about 20 feet on either side of the centerline. The city paves and maintains the street from its general funds.

    The city also uses the right of way for a side-walk. Between the side-walk and the street there is a lawn with trees on it, which is part of the right of way. The trees belong to the city and they take care of them. One of ours (one of the ones in front of our house more correctly) is dead, and the city has written us a letter stating that they know it is dead and promising that they will remove and replace it soon. The letter also said that if we sent them $200 they would give us a nicer tree. We went for that. On the other hand we mow and take care of the tree lawn.

    Does the city own the right of way? Yes, sort of, they can use it for the intended purpose, they could not put houses on it. Do we have rights in the portion of the right of way between the front of our lot. Yes. If the city were to abandon the right of way, it would revert to my wife. We hope that the city does not do that, because that would adversely affect the value of our property.

    “Let them, then, maintain it, clean it, seed-n-weed the lawns, rake the leaves and shovel the snow. … Then it’s a city’s responsibility, if a land goes to weed.”

    Nice try. But it doesn’t work that way.

    “In your defense of the municipalities you forgot one thing: homeowners already pay to the city for all the services it provides (or not) – it’s called property tax.”

    First, yes we pay property tax, that too is an encumbrance on urban property. Second. I did not, nor will defend cities, but I am happy to try to explain them. Do they spend the money wisely? No. But, they are doing a much better job than Congress.

  11. Shannon: I don’t think that Washington DC, despite the peculiar terminology, is claiming greater rights in the front yards than most cities do under their rights of way and other easements. I am sure that you can go Clint Eastwood on random trespassers. You just can’t park in front of your house.

    As I said above, I know of many communities that have similar rules, some via CC&Rs, other by ordinance. Whether or not they are reasonable is a question of context that may depend on various factors like lot sizes and street widths.

  12. Robert: yes, I know by experience (see my original comment) it does not work this way. But I think it should.
    Just like your city takes care of the trees on their side of the sidewalk.

  13. I thought it was pretty common that people have to maintain the sidewalk in front of their house. It’s also frowned upon to park your car in your driveway in such a way that it totally blocks the walk, forcing pedestrians into the street.

    Not parking on your driveway in front of your house is weird, though. And I don’t think it’s reasonable that people should not complain b/c they could have out that that is the case before they bought the house. Remember the hullabaloo when it was discovered that one of the Bushes’ property deeds had the clause that the property could not be sold to a nonwhite person? That’s a pretty common clause on a lot of deeds, unfortunately, but it is widely ignored and would not be legally defensible if anyone tried to invoke it. It’s there b/c people don’t read those things and don’t know it’s there, or know and figure it’s widely ignored, and so have not bothered to go to the trouble of removing it.

  14. Laura: The US Supreme Court declared those clauses to be unenforceable in the 1940s (IIRC). The older deeds are what they are, but the verbiage about race is meaningless.

  15. Tatyana: The possessive pronouns are emotionally loaded and should be avoided as uninformative in discussions of property rights. The real issues are what are the rights and the duties of the respective parties.

  16. I suppose in a practical sense, the above rights and duties being fairly general, I will be glad to take care of the tree-lawn and maybe even the tree, the city will let me alone, the neighborhood will prosper and we’ll all be happy. If the city decides to get technical about my car placement and is greedy enough to institute a program of ticketing in an area that is generally considered Mine, they will be destroying the Good Will that makes for good neighbors (me & the city, that is). The city is asking for trouble when it values ticketing income more than the Good Will of its citizens…

    Susan Lee

  17. Sure, Robert. My point is that the verbiage is there but it’s meaningless. If I were told that somewhere it was written down that I could not park my own car in my own driveway, but I saw others doing it (before the crackdown) I would have thought that it too was just more blah blah blah.

  18. …Which points out the desirability of removing the blah blah.

    I used to work at a chemical plant where the workers were lackadaisical about following directions, including written procedures and even safety rules. The owners told me that they wanted to change the culture. I suggested that they start by, themselves, not smoking in “no smoking” areas. Take down all the “no smoking” signs, I told them, and put them back up only in areas where you really mean it. Then you observe them too. I might as well have been speaking Japanese as far as their understanding what I was telling them or it making any sense. No, the culture did not change.

  19. Well, not to belabor the issue, but I seem to have read somewhere that ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse.’ When I bought a house on Capitol Hill, I certainly bothered to learn some real estate law, if only to protect myself and my investment. It was pretty clear that my plat showed exactly what I was buying and that it did not include my front or side lawns–I bought a house on a corner. What I owned–and what I paid taxes and insurance on–was exactly what was under my house and a triangle of land in the back that went from the full width of the townhouse to a three-foot span at stairs down to the alleyway.

    As there were several elm trees on the city’s part of ‘my land’, I was particularly interested in who was responsible for the health of those trees, especially given the fact of Dutch Elm Blight. To my non-surprise, I was.

    As this was a corner lot, we had a lot of foot traffic taking a shortcut across the diagonal. We resolved that with a $5K hedge. Now, someone could have insisted on forcing his way through the hedge and there’d have been sod all we could have done about it, but we made it just inconvenient enough to make it not worth anyone’s while. We did not have to get city permission to put in the hedge, though they would have insisted on a say about a fence, particular as this was in a historic neighborhood. We put in 5-ft hedges. Those hedges–with a new owner–are not around 15-feet tall.

    Far more odious–and insidious–was our experience when we went to rent the property when I received a new overseas assignment from USIA. A couple rented the house. It turned out that she was a DC gov’t attorney and he worked for the Rental Accommodation Board–which oversees owner/tenant law. After signing the lease, they had the house inspected and found 23 safety violations, ranging from a cracked window, a missing cabinet pull, and a cracked sidewalk (city-owned). They threatened to have the house condemned if these issues were immediately rectified. I will generously assume that they were on the lookout for slum lords, but this house was pretty far removed from a slum–though geographically, perhaps not so much.

    It took $800 to fix everything, all in one week. They then asked to be permitted to get out of the two-year lease. Not a chance in hell were they going to get out of the lease.

    At the end of the lease, it turned out that they had fraudulently applied in the first place. They had applied as a couple, but brought along two minor children who should have been declared on the lease application. They didn’t destroy the house, but the surely did not leave it in the condition in which they found it, minus wear-and-tear.

  20. Mr. Schwartz, you sound like you know something about what you’re talking about, so maybe you can answer a question for me. I’ve been wondering for some time, since having had the experience of “owning” some real estate in a city… what exactly is it that a land “owner” actually owns?

    It didn’t seem to me that I actually owned anything. I had no control over how the property was used, maintained, or modified, and I paid rent to the county and state in the form of property taxes. I honestly felt a little like a fraud when I sold it.

    I still “own” a house, but it is in a semi-rural area where most people still have an old fashioned idea of ownership rather than a technical one, but I can see that is already changing. The big question in my mind is whether there will be any perceived value left for me to sell or if everyone else will have figured out that there’s no benefit… so, honestly, what do I technically own?



  21. Robert, the possessive pronouns should be removed from the discussion of property tights?
    Please read that sentence again. How else you’re going to talk about the property if not in possessive pronouns? We are not all lawyers (thankfully).

    My property IS my possession. Or, if it is not in my possession, it is not my property. So, as John here, I too am curious, what is the ruling document here – is it a house deed, that describes, on the basis of land survey, the borders of the property that is sold to a homeowner – or city ordinances nobody heard about and nobody was warned against at the closing or before it?
    I don’t see much difference, in principle, if a city decides to fine a resident for not maintaining the sidewalk (despite said resident paying property taxes for city services, including street maintenance) – and a city prohibiting people to park in their own driveways. In both cases it is destruction of private property.

  22. …and what do you mean by “nice try”?
    Am I trying to cheat someone? To forcefully take their possession? To make them do unpaid work for which they had paid me already? All of this is what the city does, not me, a homeowner. Unfortunately, a homeowner became just a milking cow for city government, a source of revenue – absolutely helpless. Homeowner associations are not fighting with the city – they just impose more rules and regulations upon an owner, on top of endless city requirements.

    And you’re telling me “nice try”, as if I’m the crook here?

  23. “The city recently dusted off the law, and began writing parking tickets if any part of a resident’s car is parked between the front facade of their house and the street, even if it’s parked in the driveway.”

    Is this, perhaps, the real source of the problem? If this is a law that has been routinely ignored in the recent past (I don’t know, this is just a ‘suppose it’s so for the sake of discussion’) and now they need more revenue and are looking at how they can generate it, I can see why people would be upset, law or no. It’s changing the rules in the middle of the game.

    “The city is asking for trouble when it values ticketing income more than the Good Will of its citizens…”

    Susan Lee, I love your comment.

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