Expensive repair bills got folks hot under the collar for this question: who owns the alleys in Lubbock?

An alley in the West End Neighborhood in Lubbock, Texas.

Who owns the alley behind your home? Not everyone agrees.

You have to take care of it. But you don’t control it, and – short of the city’s permission – you have no say over what happens there.

The issue came to light for Jenni Boller and other residents in January. She told EverythingLubbock.com she had a problem with the sewer trap in the alley behind her home. She had no idea a change in city ordinances in October put the cost of that repair on her – not the city.

She wasn’t the only one. The city had been making, on average, four repairs per day on pipes in the alleys. When the policy changed, city officials heard lots of complaints.

Price estimates ranged from $600 to $10,000 according to the city.

The City Council reversed course Tuesday, but it’s not official until the council votes a second time. The question came up repeatedly in the council meeting. Who owns the alley?

The answer was not consistent.

In the alley, you must:

• Keep the alley clean and mow it (§36.01.008)
• Keep the alley “free from any defects and hazards” (§36.01.005).
• Trim trees and bushes to keep a 12-foot-high clearance over the alley (§36.01.005).
• Get a permit before you pave the alley or repair the pavement (§36.08.006).
• Maintain and repair paving outside a 10-foot lane in the alley if it’s paved (§36.08.009).
• Pay 90 percent of the cost (shared with your neighbors) if the city paves your alley (§36.08.008).

In the alley, you must not:

• Let garbage or rubbish remain (outside a dumpster) after 24 hours (§22.06.012).
• “Fail to remove” large discarded items (§22.06.005).
• Leave things in the alley or obstruct the view (§34.01.002).
• Post signs or advertisements (§36.01.002).
• Sell food or other goods without a street license (§36.01.004).
• Herd cattle, sheep, hogs or other animals (City Charter §23).

For the city:

• The city can remove any obstruction from the alley (§36.01.010).
• Any pavement you put in becomes the city’s property (§36.08.007).
• “The City of Lubbock shall have exclusive dominion, control and jurisdiction in, over and under the public streets, avenues, alleys, highways and boulevards and public places … ” (City Charter §15).
• The city can collect money from companies using the alleys (City Charter §18).

So who owns the alley?

In Tuesday’s council meeting, Mayor Tray Payne asked John Turpin, Lubbock’s assistant director of water utilities, “Who owns the alley?”

Turpin answered, “It’s a public right of way. It’s owned by the public.”

Payne then pointed out residents must mow the alleys, repair them, keep the trash out of them and so on.

“It’s not the city’s property. Would you agree?” Payne asked Turpin.

Turpin responded, “That is correct, sir.”

Later in the conversation, Councilmember Latrelle Joy also took issue, saying, “I think we’re playing word games with the alleys. Mr. Turpin said the alleys belong to the public. That’s not true.”

“They belong to the public, subject to whatever ordinances the city has put in. For example, there are certain things you cannot do in your alley that are prohibited,” Joy said.

In Turpin’s defense, some would say he was right. We’ll get to that.

Joy admitted there is a public perception about ownership.

“I think, if you ask a lot of people, they would tell you that the alleys belong to the city. That’s where the trash trucks go. That’s where your dumpsters are. And that’s where the utilities, who pay franchise fees, put … whatever they’re going to put,” Joy said in the meeting.

“The sewer system belongs to the city of Lubbock. And it’s hard for me to imagine the sewer system without the alley,” she also said.

The next day, LubbockLights.com spoke with Wood Franklin, director of public utilities, about alley ownership.

Franklin – just like Turpin – answered, “The public owns the alley. So, the alley and the streets are dedicated public rights-of-way.”

“The land itself, the alley, is dedicated to the public for public use,” Franklin said.

“Within the city, we are the governmental entity that’s overseeing those rights,” he said.

Dedicated before your house was built

Franklin made a distinction between the city’s “designated public right-of-way” and how things are done in the county.

“A lot of what they do are street easements,” Franklin said.

Cambridge Dictionary defined easement as, “the legal right to cross or use someone else’s land for a particular purpose.”

County residents still own the property under the street. That’s not the same for streets and alleys in the city.

Alley – Any public street, typically between fifteen (15) and twenty (20) feet in width, having no official name, which is designed primarily for installation of and access to public utilities, as well as providing access to abutting properties.
Public right-of-way – Any street, avenue, boulevard, highway, alley or similar place which is owned or controlled by a public governmental entity.–
Source: city ordinances.

The city has more than an easement – that is more than just the right to use the alley. It also has the right to collect money (franchise fees) from companies such as Atmos that use the alleys, Franklin said.

And the city has the right to say what you can or can’t do in the alley. Although, Frankin points out that is also the case, to some extent, on private property.

The alley was dedicated to the public before a developer ever built it, according to Wood. You are not the property owner, but you are the adjacent property owner. And that’s true of both the alley and the sidewalk. Technically, it’s also true for the curb and gutter.

Even though it’s not yours, you still have to take care of it.

Sometimes the city can help

If someone dumps a couch or tires in the alley behind your house, you are obligated to clean up the mess. However, the city will sometimes cut you a break.

“We will collect it and pick it up and haul it off,” Franklin said. The city has a contractor to help the Codes Enforcement Department with that.

And if a city trash truck damages the line between your home and the sewer main, that’s a different circumstance. In that case, you would file a damage claim with the city – the same for an Atmos truck or cable/internet companies.

The city also fixes curbs and gutters, but technically that’s the property owner’s responsibility. If the curb was damaged by tree roots, the city will still make the owner pay for the tree before fixing the curb.

Regardless of who owns the alley

In the council meeting, the mayor was trying to distinguish – owned by the public is not quite the same thing as owned by the city. But ultimately the issue is deciding who pays for certain repairs in the alley.

The sewer main belongs to the city. No one disputes that. And the pipe connecting your home to the sewer is the homeowner’s property. No one disputes that.

The mayor voted against the city paying for certain repairs in the alley because the pipes connecting to the home are private property.

In voting 5-1 to make the city go back to paying for the private pipes in the alley, several council members said this is not the end of the issue.

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Author: James Clark- James Clark is the associate editor of Lubbock Lights. He worked in radio, television and digital media for a combined total of more than 30 years. He was Director of Digital News Content at KAMC, KLBK and EverythingLubbock.com for nearly 10 years.