Who owns sidewalk tree planters in New York City? The city, or the owners of the building the sidewalk abuts?
August 16, 2011 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Who owns sidewalk tree planters in New York City? The city, or the owners of the building the sidewalk abuts?

Recently my girlfriend and I have been yelled at by our neighbors in Greenpoint for allowing our dog to go to the bathroom in such spots (specifically, the square patches of dirt that inset in the sidewalk and occasionally have trees -- not freestanding planters.) Of course, these are the only places in the neighborhood our dog will go to the bathroom, and most other dogs do the same thing.

One neighbor in particular has recently resoiled the patch in front of their apartment building, and planet a new sapling there, which implies that they feel ownership of the plot; on the other hand, the plot is part of a public sidewalk that the city maintains. I thought I had read somewhere that individuals could own sidewalk trees in New York (but that they reverted back to the city after so many years), but now can't find the reference.


1) Who owns those plots? The city or the owner of the building?


2) Is the owner within their legal right to prevent my dog from peeing there?

(Of course, I'm not pressing the issue with my neighbors -- there are plenty of other places for my dog to pee -- I'm just curious about the fact of the matter.)
posted by tweebiscuit to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The city owns, but the building owner approves the planting. This goes through the Parks Department.


Your dog's urine and feces damages the soil and/or kills whatever is planted there.

Seek alternative defecation spots. You are in the wrong. So sorry.

(I headed a movement to get my block in Manhattan planted with trees, so I have first-hand knowledge of the in's and out's - not trying to be mean. I've had dogs. Just telling you the facts.)
posted by jbenben at 10:23 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I can only answer 1): the land the trees are sitting on is almost definitely the city's. It most likely varies from city to city, but typically the streets and abutting sidewalks are included in what's known as the Right of Way (ROW), which is basically property of the city for purposes of having street access, water mains, sewer lines, stormwater drainage, and other public improvements in a relatively easily accessible spot. In my area, the ROW generally goes to the back (private property side) of the sidewalk, although that's not always the case.

Even though the ROW is city property, adjacent property owners will quite often want to put things in it to benefit their property, like a driveway apron. Sometimes, as a condition of giving you a building permit or something similar, the city will require you to put things in the ROW, like street trees. These things that the property owner technically owns but are located on city property are governed in my area by Encroachment Maintenance and Removal Agreements, or EMRAs. The EMRA basically states that the city is letting you put something on their property (encroachment) as long as you maintain it and agree to remove it if the city asks you to (like if they need to install a new water main or want to widen the street).

So, you're basically right that the city owns the land but the people own the trees, probably for a certain length of time, since trees generally outlive people.
posted by LionIndex at 10:28 PM on August 16, 2011

Just re-read your post -- I'm not sure if it matters if your neighbor petitioned the city to have the tree planted or planted it themselves. Public sidewalk, but the trees all fall under the Parks Department. Once it's in, it's in.
posted by jbenben at 10:29 PM on August 16, 2011

Not an expert here, but I do remember that businesses in NYC are responsible for maintaining and sweeping the sidewalks in front of their storefronts, even though they do not maintain ownership of those sidewalks (in any meaningful sense of the word). I'd have to imagine that a similar statute applies to treeboxes. (Oh, and this law is indeed enforced. I specifically remember processing checks for "sidewalk sweeping violations" when my family ran a business in Brooklyn, before the Giuliani days)

Here in DC, you can install a treebox or plant a street tree with minimal fuss. However, if you remove a treebox or cut down a healthy street tree in front of a building that you own, the city will take surprisingly swift legal action against you. Again, I'm not 100% specific on how things work in NYC, but this seems like a fairly common arrangement in an urban environment. Around here, there's all sorts of politics surrounding treeboxes -- the installation/maintenance of treeboxes is often included as a concession by a developer or business seeking a zoning exemption, and the city will ask you very nicely to water and care for any trees that they plant there. (No way that they'd trade it for something as big as a curb cut, as a poster mentioned above. Large cities don't readily give out curb cuts these days.)

If the patch of soil is between the sidewalk and the building (as opposed to the street), the ownership may be a bit more complicated, and is most likely property of the building (depending on zoning and the specific nature of the plot that the building's sitting on). If this is the case, your dog is indeed shitting in somebody else's yard. Not cool.

Also, your neighbors are right. It's really bad for the trees. Teach your dog to piss somewhere else.
posted by schmod at 10:39 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is where the phrase "curb your dog" comes into play. A good city dog should do their business at the curb, then you pick up the solids. It's really pretty easy to teach, especially at at young age. Still, people are constantly surprised when my dog dashes out to the curb in the morning (he's a good boy).
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:45 PM on August 16, 2011

Best answer: (I wrote my previous answer from my smart phone and I realized I should elaborate)

The New York Times had an expert in New York City's dog waste laws a few years back (he wrote a book on it, if you can believe that). The relevant section from the article:
We are expected to “curb” our dogs and pick up after them. That means guiding them to the outside edge of the sidewalk, ideally into the gutter, before they go. Like so many other decisions made over the years on accommodating pet animals, little thought was given to the logistics of this operation. The “curb law” has had low compliance since it was passed in the 1930s.
Which then links to Barry Popkin's Blog (among other things he's fairly well connected in NYC political circles and is a contributor to the OED):
4 December 1938, Chicago Daily Tribune, "Mostly About Dogs" by Bob Becker, pg. F10:
"Curb Your Dog" Good Advice
In New York, truly a doggy city, an ordinance has been passed to make for a cleaner city and at the same time compel the indifferent dog owner to consider public welfare. The ordinance demands that dogs be curbed. There are signs everywhere with the request, "Curb your dog." It means that owners cannot allow their pets to soil buildings, nor can a dog make a nuisance of himself on the grass of the parkway or on the sidewalk. As a result there are practically no complaints about the dogs soiling sidewalks or grassy places which the public uses. Any one not curbing his dog when the occasion demands it is given a ticket and must go to court and pay a fine.
Of course this law will never really be enforced. Still, I can imagine a certain type of New Yorker, especially older folks, remembering this movement and adhering to what is still technically the law.

This isn't a question of who owns what property. Instead it's an elaboration of what it means to be a responsible dog owner living in an urban environment. I think it's morally and legally right to curb one's dog, but even if you don't it's a fun thing to teach your dog, and it's a fine way to show respect to your neighbors (especially the tough old Brooklyn crowd).
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:48 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've never really believed that dog pee or poop was that damaging to NYC street tree plantings. But yeah, it's a religiously held point of view among defenders of the trees and many tree plantings have metal or wooden barriers to prevent your dog from doing its business.

For those who say dog waste laws are "never enforced", let me just say that I spent lots of time in NYC in the 70s and 80s (grew up outside the city); I've now lived here for 15 years. When I was a kid you practically could not walk down any Manhattan street without watching out for dog crap, and eventually you'd step in it on almost any given excursion.

Now you can hardly ever see it. And you see well dressed yuppies holding their noses and carrying little bags of poop for their fashionable accessory pets (chihuahua, shiba inu, whatever -- depends on the neighborhood, gender of the dog owner, season, and which dog breed is in this year). Those of us who don't own dogs have been known to stare at walkers who look like they're planning to walk away and leave it, or even say something. This is one of few subjects where New Yorkers decidedly do not mind their own business.

And these laws are indeed enforced, to the tune of a $100 fine. They will get you eventually. Every dog owner I know has a story, usually about leash compliance laws, but sometimes about poop violations.

(Now if only they enforced the laws about dogs in food stores, because that shit is disgusting and dog-owning New Yorkers seem not to realize that the rest of us don't really want little Sharky rubbing his butt all over the twinkies and limes at the bodega. It amazes me that New Yorkers who are obsessive about hand sanitizer and not touching subway stairwell railings think nothing of a 60 pound dog nosing its way down the supermarket aisle.)
posted by spitbull at 5:08 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

tweebiscuit, it would never have occurred to me to either be angry at someone for allowing their dog to pee on the tree in front of my house or that someone would be angry at me for allowing my dog to pee on a tree near their house. I'm way more grossed out at the idea that all our dogs are supposed to be peeing essentially in the street.
posted by crankylex at 6:59 AM on August 17, 2011

I've never really believed that dog pee or poop was that damaging to NYC street tree plantings.

Urine is acidic and high in salts. Here are pictures of trees damaged by dog pee.

Where I live, the city considers street trees an amenity: they will plant them, however new saplings must be cared for and watered by the building owner (who has usually requested them).
posted by oneirodynia at 9:57 AM on August 17, 2011

Response by poster: 2bucksplus -- fascinating! I've lived in the city for years, and have never known (nor ever met anyone who knew) what the original meaning of "curb your dog" was -- I always assumed it meant "pick up your dog's poop and throw it away" (which of course I do.) Thanks for the elucidation, all.
posted by tweebiscuit at 4:32 PM on August 17, 2011

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