What's Up With That? ‘Supereasements’ give governments the final word on privately owned sidewalks

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Who owns the sidewalk in front of my house? And who’s responsible for maintaining it? If it’s broken, do I notify the city or take care of it myself? If I take care of it myself, do I need a permit?

— Confused Clark County citizen

Sidewalk ownership and responsibility aren’t quite as confusing as they may appear. Basically, citizen, the sidewalk is your property and your responsibility. The caveat is that your local government can tell you exactly how and when to execute that responsibility.

This question came in early last week, just as snow was falling and kids were crossing their fingers for a snow day (which they got). Loretta Callahan, Vancouver’s public works spokeswoman, said questions about sidewalks do tend to pile up along with the flakes.

Who’s responsible for shoveling the sidewalk? You are, tenant or property owner. There’s even a section of city code that says so: Chapter 11.40, “Snow and ice removal,” specifies that it is “unlawful for any person to permit any accumulation of snow and/or ice upon any planked, cement or paved sidewalk in front of any premises owned or occupied by him.” (Or her, of course.) There’s a parallel section covering volcanic ash removal, too.

Get the drift here? The sidewalk is your property, technically speaking, but your local government really holds all the cards when it comes to controlling it. Can you say “supereasement”?

“(W)hen a sidewalk or street is dedicated as a public right of way, as almost all local sidewalks are, the local government becomes the owner of a sort of ‘supereasement’ that gives every property right to the local government,” Vancouver assistant city attorney Linda Marousek said in an email. That changes only when the government legally “vacates” the right of way.“Sidewalk ordinances do typically impose the maintenance obligation on the abutting property owner,” Marousek concluded.

And yes, you do need to follow all the usual rules and obtain all the usual permits for construction and maintenance. That includes the use of a licensed contractor, Marousek said.

These answers came from the city of Vancouver, but it’s pretty standard stuff for jurisdictions across the nation. Sidewalks are private property, technically speaking, but since they are dedicated to public use, local governments require them to be kept in good condition for the public.

Clark County code says that if you fail to make required repairs, the county can do the work and bill you for it.

— Scott Hewitt

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