Most subdivisions that create individual lots, also have streets, drainage systems and utility easements that are either dedicated to the local jurisdiction or an easement over your private property. Streets are often designed to certain standards and their overall width as shown on the subdivision plat map often encroaches onto what you may think is your property. A Right of Way or Rights of Way, is typically the section of land between the edge of the street and your actual front property line. This Right of Way allows the city or county to do a number of things including access utility connections, maintain drainage ditches, curb and gutter, sidewalks or even to widen the road if that is in the master plan.
Most homeowners are not aware that this section of land has restrictions on its use. Whether it is an easement across your property or the Right of Way is city or county owned, you may not build or construct anything you want without risking it being removed if access to land is required. Often a Right of Way permit is required to do anything.
So what can you build in your front yard? First, you must determine exactly what you own and what the city or county owns. In a Right of Way, typically you may install a driveway across the ROW to access the street. But building any kind of wall is typically not allowed within a Right of Way or Easement. If the city or county was to grant you a permit to build it, who then would maintain it and if the city had to dig up utility lines and remove the structure, who would pay to replace it? These are the reasons, only minimal improvements are allowed such as driveways and landscape plant material.
You will also find out about your front yard building setback which is different than an easement or a ROW. It is a part of the Zoning District setup by the city to regulate how close buildings can be to their lot lots on all four sides. Front yard setbacks restrict how close to the front yard property line you can build your house or any extension of it including low walls such as for a courtyard.
In planning the design of residential landscape, I check with the city as the first step to determine where the Right of Way, Easements and Setbacks are located. These are all building restrictions that must be followed, especially if what the homeowner wants to do requires a building permit.
Jurisdictions have different regulations and use restrictions as to what can be done and who will maintain it. The city may turn maintenance responsibility over to the homeowners even though they own the underlying property. If a homeowner improves the Right of Way with landscaping for their benefit, then it is in their best interest to continue to maintain it so it looks good. The one thing the city is most concerned about is liability. If the Right of Way is subject to flooding or has excessive weed growth, it may go ahead and perform maintenance because, legally it is the owner of the property.
Restrictions on the use of one's property is part of the due diligence everyone should perform when buying new real estate. Locating the property corners will often reveal that a good portion of the front yard is really not your property, or may have restrictions that may not be acceptable to you. This is often the case with raw land where the actual property lines are not obvious.
I have seen where a person property is actually the center line of the street and also where the property line is about 25 feet away from the edge of pavement. These Right of Ways and Easements can vary widely among jurisdictions. If you have an issue with your Right of Way landscaping, I may be able to help.