What is a Public Right of Way?

M. Lupica

A public right of way is a public right to travel unhindered over a piece of land, even if that land is privately owned. Generally, this term is in reference to sidewalks and streets that are located on city or town property. However, even if the public right of way is on such public property, any landowner adjacent to the right of way may have a responsibility to keep the public right of way safe for travel by pedestrians. A public right of way can be differentiated from a “private right of way,” which is usually referred to as an “easement.”

Easements enable the public to legally travel across a portion of private land.
Easements enable the public to legally travel across a portion of private land.

The most common examples of a public right of way are sidewalks and public roads. A public right of way does not have to be at ground level, however. City maintained power lines that go across someone’s property or sewage pipes that run underground across private property may also be considered public rights of way. The public necessity for such infrastructure gives the city or town an implied right to run such infrastructure across private property with or without the express consent of the owner.

Even though public rights of way are technically owned by the city in which they are situated, adjacent property owners generally are responsible for the immediate safety for travel along the right of way. This does not mean that a property owner must refill potholes that develop on the street in front of his or her house, but he or she has a responsibility to make reasonable upkeep. For instance, if there is a snowstorm, he or she usually has an obligation to shovel the sidewalk and make sure that it is not dangerously icy. Additionally, he or she may be responsible for the removal of any dead branches hanging from trees on the public right of way that run the risk of breaking and harming passers-by.

A private right of way is usually called an “easement.” Easements are private grants by a landowner to another party — which may be a private party or the government — to use his or her land for a stated purpose. For example, the owner of a farm may grant a neighbor the right to drive across his or her land for the purpose of entering or leaving a property. This is a common grant in situations where the neighbor has no easy way to reach a public road through his or her own land. Unlike a public right of way, easements are generally revocable unless otherwise stated in the easement grant.

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