There are many complicated rules and regulations which affect how we live on and use streets. In order to provide definitions of commonly used terms and to clarify some the rules, rights and responsibilities regarding unimproved streets, below are answers to some frequently asked questions we've encountered so far.

What is a street and what is the right-of-way (ROW)?

The City of Portland defines a street “to be any street as defined in the City Charter, including all area between property lines, and area dedicated to street use.” This is not a very clear definition but it is the one offered by the city charter.

The right-of-way (ROW) refers to the legal access easement which exists over all public streets and includes all space entitled to public use. An access easement allows the City of Portland to require some maintenance obligations from the property owners adjacent to the street while still allowing for public use of the street and sidewalk. The full ROW may include the sidewalk, planter strip, curb, gutter, parking lanes and travel lanes within the street. If these elements don’t currently exist, it still doesn’t preclude the space from being within the ROW.

What is an unimproved street?

The Portland charter offers no clear definition of unimproved streets. For the purposes of this project, LARKE generally considers any street which is not maintained by the Portland Bureau of Transportation to be "unimproved."  Typically, unimproved streets are lacking some combination of a paved surface, curbs, and sidewalks.  

Why are so many streets unimproved?

There is no exact answer to this question. It is likely that when the Woodstock neighborhood was annexed into the city limits, existing unimproved streets were unfinished at the time of annexation, like many outer SE neighborhoods. Through many different administrations during the last century, the City has never made paving these streets a priority. In the current economic climate, the City does not have the financial means to dedicate toward bringing unimproved streets up to the city standards required for the City maintenance.

What City agencies might be involved in street improvements and maintenance?

The City includes many bureaus which maintain the infrastructure and development of the city of Portland. These are some of the bureaus that regularly work on projects within the street:

Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT): For the most part, PBOT maintains roadways and transportation systems throughout the city. According to their website, PBOT's charge is to “plan, build, manage and maintain an effective and safe transportation system that provides people and businesses access and mobility.” PBOT has several different programs which deal with construction and maintenance of streets, including their Expanded Maintenance Options, Local Improvement Districts (LIDS) and the Transportation System Plan, which is the long-range plan to guide transportation investments in Portland.

Bureau of Development Services (BDS): BDS administers building and development codes, issues building permits and facilitates entitlement for new developments on private properties. BDS moniters and regulates work on private property ensuring that such work does not create problems within the ROW. If you want to build anything new on your property, you are generally required to check with BDS first.

Bureau of Environmental Services (BES): BES provides Portland residents with water quality protection, watershed planning, wastewater collection and treatment, sewer installation and stormwater management. BES activities in the ROW deal with managing sewer and stormwater treatment with street, parking strip and pedestrian zones of the ROW.

Who is responsible for maintaining unimproved streets?

Property owners on unimproved streets are responsible for maintenance of the ROW. According to the city charter, as the property owner, you have both the right and the obligation to maintain your section of unimproved street maintenance up to the center line of the street. In Title 17.42 of the city charter it states:

"Until a street improvement has been constructed to City standards and the City has expressly assumed responsibility for street maintenance,
it is the exclusive duty of the abutting property owners to construct, reconstruct, repair and maintain the unimproved street in a condition reasonably safe for the uses that are made of the street and adjoining properties. Streets that have not been improved to City standards are not and will not be maintained or improved at City expense, except at the discretion of the City and as provided in this Code and the City Charter."

How flexible is the City about how adjacent property owners use and maintain unimproved ROWs?

While the city requires unimproved streets to be maintained by adjacent property owners, only certain types of work can be done without a permit obtained from the city. Under the Expanded Maintenance Options, the City allows some flexibility in maintenance performed by property owners. As long as the following parameters are met, owner maintenance of unimproved streets is allowed without a permit:      

  • travel lane width on the unimproved street remains the same
  • there is no change in existing drainage patterns outside the ROW and drainage ways within the right-of-way are not altered to impact water flow
  • materials used in street maintenance are equivalent to the existing street materials
  • no asphalt, concrete or other man-made material is applied to existing dirt or gravel surface
  • any new maintenance does not adversely affect neighboring properties
  • no trees are removed from the ROW
  • no speed bumps or other traffic calming devices are constructed. 
Essentially, as a property owner you may maintain the adjacent unimproved ROW up to the quality it currently is or was in the past. If you can prove that the street was once in better condition -- for example, if there was gravel in the street at one point -- you can lay down new gravel without a permit. All maintenance performed in the ROW using larger tools and vehicles and without a permit falls under the PBOTs Expanded Maintenance Options.

Who is responsible when problems occur in unimproved streets?

Property owners along unimproved streets are liable for any problems which occur as a result of defective conditions of streets. (See Chapter 17.42.030 of the Portland Charter.) The charter also says that property owners along unimproved streets are liable for any claims, judgments, settlements and defense costs the City incurs due to the property owner's failure to maintain, construct and repair unimproved streets. Basically, if the City gets sued because of damage occurring on an unimproved street next to your house, you are responsible party, not the city. This is unlikely to happen, but the City has its bases covered.

What are the repercussions for private uses within the public ROW?

Portland operates on complaint-based system for nuisance claims within the public ROW. If someone complains about private uses within the ROW, the City will send the property owner a letter informing them of their liability for the unimproved street and may require removal of the perceived nuisance.  The City does minimal follow-up to such complaints unless complaints are lodged repeatedly against the same property owner.

What standards does a street have to meet to be accepted for maintenance by the City?

PBOT does not want to encourage the construction of poor quality streets, so the bureau sets a high engineering bar to ensure long-lasting and high-quality streets. Portland's existing neighborhood street standards are designed primarily as traffic facilities comprised of two travel lanes, plus either two parking lanes, one parking lane, or no parking, yielding widths of 32, 28, or 20 feet, respectively. In an R5 zone, the full ROW -- including sidewalks, curbs, gutter, parking and travel lanes -- can vary from 35 to 50 feet. The minimum sidewalk width is at least 5 feet and the parking strip varies from 5 to 10 feet depending on the requirements for stormwater management assessed by the Bureau of Environmental Services.

Who maintains improved streets?

If the City accepts a finished street for maintenance, the abutting property owner is still responsible for the sidewalk, curbs, driveways and parking strips. However, the City will maintain the curb except when in combination with the sidewalk damage or if the curb has been damaged by tree roots. Green streets and public stormwater facilities which are generally found in the planter strip area are maintained by the Bureau of Environmental Services. The City also maintains the width of pavement in between the curbs on either side of the improved street.

What is an LID?

A Local Improvement District (LID) is a method by which a group of property owners can share in the cost of transportation infrastructure improvements. This involves improving the street, building sidewalks, and installing a stormwater management system. An LID can also be used to install sidewalks on existing streets that previously have been accepted for maintenance by the City. When an LID is formed, property owners agree to assume responsibility to pay for the project. The cost of new street construction is assessed and then divided among property owners. Financing for the project is accrued either through property owners paying up front for their portion of the cost (usually around $20K) or through a lien assessed against the homeowner's property to be paid off in 5, 10 or 20 years.

Why are some streets improved at certain times without the neighborhood being informed?

City-sponsored street maintenance happens for a variety of reasons. The City decides to perform maintenance at their own discretion, so even when they are not obliged to make improvements, sometimes they do! For example, if BES performs a sewer maintenance project within the right-of-way, the bureau may pave the street after they complete their project. This still doesn't mean the obligation for maintenance has moved from the property owner to the City; it only means the properties on that street did not have to pay for their expanded maintenance options. The important thing to remember here is that even if a bureau does improvement work within the street, unless PBOT accepts the street as up to full city street standards, the responsibility and liability for the street still rests with the adjacent property owner.

Other Questions?  Send them to roadwaynotimproved@gmail.com and we will try to find an answer!