Clip the strip, but it’s not fully yours

Dear Real Estate Adviser,
There’s a strip of land between the road and my yard I maintain except for just a few feet, which the city or county mows maybe once a season. Does this property become mine in a couple of years because I’ve taken care of it? My neighbors have the same situation. If we don’t mow, then it doesn’t get done. I have tried unsuccessfully to find the answer online.
— Barbie J.

Dear Barbie,
Good question. Forgive the game of Socratic questioning, but now I have one for you. When is your property not your property? When it’s a “right of way” controlled by the city or county. Yes, unless that once-a-season mowing job is sufficient for your neighborhood’s sensibilities, you are apparently the de facto maintenance person for that strip in front of the road. But even if you plant a tree, flower bed or half-ton brick mailbox there, it’s still not yours!

The local government reserves future rights to this land to allow it to do such things as widen your street, install curbs, gutters or sidewalks, or rip up and replace subterranean utilities. The public entity also has the code-enforcement latitude at any point to demand that you remove a fence, basketball goal post or anything else you put there. But should the roots of one of your trees poke out from the ground or should someone slip on ice or snow on that strip, well, that’s a different story. It then becomes your responsibility.

Depending on where you live, this right of way — also called a city easement — can typically extend anywhere from 25 feet from the center line of the road to more than 100 feet from it, particularly for homes located on four-lane highways or other wide arteries. Call city hall if you’re not sure how much of these strips belong to the municipal authority.

If you and your neighbors were to look at deed records for your subdivision, you’d likely see that widths reserved for streets and roads are platted to be larger than they actually measure by a good 5 to 10 feet.

Oddly, there’s no one set name for this neutral ground. Among the dozens of monikers are parkway, beltway, side median, swale, tree lawn, tree terrace, nature strip, planting strip, curb strip, county strip, verge and escapement. Another term for it, “devil’s strip,” sounds like it was named by the Carl character in the old “Sling Blade” movie. (Though he’d probably call it a Hades strip).

And sorry, just because you’ve taken loving care of that strip doesn’t mean you can claim it by adverse possession, or “squatter’s rights.” Unlike instances where people use adverse possession to claim private property they’ve openly occupied for years without protest from the real owners, this strip is public land and never subject to private appropriation. (Finally, you have your online answer!)

What you and your neighbors can do is contact or jointly petition the city to have this devilish strip of land maintained more rigorously. But I wouldn’t plan an elaborate topiary or anything else there. And just in case, keep that lawnmower well-oiled for extra duty.

Here’s hoping you find some common ground on the issue.

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