The Green Team Part 8, Property Lines: Invisible Identifiers of Ownership

Know your limits

In our blog, From Field to Park, we discussed the post-tagging process for trees and transporting them to a project site. Here, we turn our attention to property lines and their importance to a project’s success.

It is not often that property lines are tangible, constructed elements visible at the boundary of every plot of land or building lot. More often, we find that these critical legal delineations—represented by a linear arrangement of one long and two short dashes on surveys or within drawing files—are not easily identified in situ. They can be like the mosquito buzzing in your ear. You never see it, but then feel the bite. An error in siting this legal boundary correctly in the field or on drawings can quickly escalate from minor drafting revisions to major design changes or worse.   Inherently an American privilege, property ownership is measured in fractions of an inch. As designers, we must be aware of what that fraction may cost if not properly documented.

A misconception when reviewing design drawings? The belief that a contract limit line, natural features like streams or ridgelines, or built elements such as perimeter fences or building facades are what demarcate the edge of the property. It’s imperative that at the start of a project, the true property line—and not an arbitrary edge—is identified. An assessment of edge conditions should be part of the initial site analysis to determine if future design elements will impact this relationship.

There can be several oversights at the property perimeter. These are often discovered in later, more costly stages of a project and frequently occur when the initial assessment was not comprehensive or when insufficient data was available for a site. Some typical lapses include subterranean footings for buildings or structures that extend beyond the property line, misdirected overland drainage flows that will either unnecessarily enter or unlawfully exit the site, or the construction of a barrier (wall, fence, screen, etc.) that is improperly located on the adjacent property. While a site element and its foundation may be positioned properly, we must also consider the excavation of and any necessary shoring for foundations that may extend beyond the property line.

Working on a recent project in the South Bronx, we had an experience in which assumptions related to the siting of an existing fence at the Hunts Point Produce Market resulted in design revisions. This happened when a field survey revealed that the existing fence was actually located in the public right of way. As a result, we needed to shift the proposed fence alignment within the legal boundary. The revised design also had to accommodate the new footings within the property. Had the footings not been designed to fit within the property, we would have had to pursue a special permit from the NYCDOT (New York City Department of Transportation). This process takes four to six months and results in the client having to pay an annual fee in perpetuity. Fortunately, the final layout of the fence allowed for all portions of it to be within the legal boundary, and no further action was required. While this dilemma was easily resolved, a more troublesome scenario can occur when adjacent properties are privately owned, and there is no opportunity to obtain a variance to cross the line.

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The new, colored concrete fence at the Hunts Point Produce Market was sited to ensure that both the fence and the required footings lie within the property line and do not extend into the public right-of-way beyond.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

In order to prevent a “mine versus yours” situation, we identify all property lines at the project’s onset in the site survey, on reference maps and design drawings, and in the field. Sometimes we engage a licensed surveyor to verify the legal boundary. We make sure that all final design elements and the related infrastructure are within the site’s legal boundary and that the proposed work will not affect adjacent properties.

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While new work cannot breach the property line, a design can improve the use of the site by allowing access and interaction across property lines, such as the open-air plaza at El Museo del Barrio.

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

Different sites provide different opportunities and constraints. We can maximize opportunities where a property line—while not breached as part of the site construction– can be invisible in the final design, allowing for more expansive, unbroken views that provide a grander sense of space. There are also opportunities in which establishing a physical barrier at the property edge promotes a sense of privacy and security that some clients want.

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The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts streetscape installation clearly defines the property edge while framing views into the plaza from the adjacent public sidewalk.

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

Edge conditions, not always along a property line, provide their own set of design challenges and opportunities for our Green Team, especially in an urban environment. Have you experienced similar challenges?

In our next post, we’ll discuss what we can do when limited horizontal space force us to look up–to vertical landscapes.

Terrie Brightman, RLA, ASLA is a practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City with over eight years of professional experience. Since receiving her BLA from the Pennsylvania State University she has worked on riverfronts in Pittsburgh, private residences in California and Florida, a sustainable community in Turkey and multiple public parks, plaza and waterfronts throughout New York City.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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