What are sewer easements and why do we clear them?

August 29, 2017

From late August to mid-September, our crews will mow sanitary sewer easements in an area on the east side of Chapel Hill as shown below. Weather and other conditions may affect the timing of mowing.

Links to information below:

Highlights      What is a sewer easement?      Who owns the land in an easement?      

How can I find out whether an OWASA easement is on my land? 

Why does OWASA clear its easements?      Are some water pipes in easements?

How wide are sewer easements and where are they located?

Are gates allowed on easements?      Are fences allowed on easements?

Advice and information from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

What are invasive exotic plants?      Before planting IN an easement...

Before planting NEAR an easement...

Highlights

  • We keep our easements clear to make sure that we will have quick access when emergency work is needed and to keep roots from growing into and blocking our sewers. Blockages cause wastewater to overflow from a manhole, etc.
  • If you are not sure whether there is an OWASA sewer or easement on your land, please contact us at 919-537-9292 or info@owasa.org.
  • Most of our easements are 30 feet wide but we may need to clear only about 20 feet (10 feet on each side of a sewer) so that about 5 feet may be available on each side for plantings.
  • Before planting in an easement, please read this brochure and contact us at 919-968-4421 or info@owasa.org.
  • If you plant near an OWASA easement, we recommend planting several feet away from the easement so that when fully grown, the tree or shrub will not extend into the easement. It is possible that we may need to trim or cut plantings up to our easement boundary.

What is a sewer easement?

A sewer is a pipe that receives wastewater from homes, businesses, etc. and carries it to a wastewater treatment plant.

A sewer easement is an area where we have the right to enter, maintain, repair, inspect, improve, renovate and replace facilities including pipes and manholes; and to keep clear access.

About half of our sewers are in easements in off-street areas. The other half of our sewers are in public street rights of way, which normally include several feet on each side of the street or roadway.

Who owns the land in an easement?

The presence of an easement does not change the basic ownership of land. However, some of the landowner’s normal rights are limited by the easement as discussed in this brochure.

How can I find out whether an OWASA easement is on my land?

If you are not sure whether there is an OWASA easement on your land, please call us at 919-968-4421 and ask for an Engineering Technician. We’ll be glad to check our records and let you know what we find. Please note that we may not have records of some easements, especially where sewers are very old.

If there are public sanitary sewer manholes, a sewer main or a water main on or within about 15 feet of your land, it is safe to assume that at least part of an easement is on your land.

We recommend that you check your property acquisition records to see if there are easements on your land. The location of an easement  is normally recorded in the County Registry of Deeds with a document called a “plat”  showing the boundary of easement(s).

Why does OWASA clear its easements?

  • prevent tree and shrub roots from entering cracks and joints in sewer mains.  When roots grow into a sewer,  they grow  into a dense mass that will block the flow of wastewater and cause it to overflow from a manhole or possibly inside a residence.
  • help us get to a sewer quickly if  there is a wastewater overflow. When overflows occur, we work to stop them quickly to prevent environmental damage.
  • ensure that we will have safe, practical access when other repairs, maintenance, inspections, renovation, replacement, etc. are needed.

The diagram above shows how a 30-foot-wide easement is often used for equipment operation and other purposes when sewer pipes are installed.

Similarly, we may also need the 30-foot easement width for maintenance, inspection, repair, renovation or replacement of a sewer.

However, after a sewer is initially installed, we may clear only about 20 feet of the easement.

Are some water mains in easements?

Most of our water pipes are in public street rights-of-way (which normally include a few feet on each side of the street pavement).

However, some water mains are in off-street easements.

We clear water main easements for  the same basic reasons as for sewer easements.

How wide are sewer easements and where are they located?

Our easements are normally 30 feet wide but we may  clear only about 20 feet (10 feet on each side of a sewer). 

Most sewers in our community operate with the simple force of gravity. Therefore, many sewers are in, near or across low-lying areas such as  streams, creeks and ravines.

In many cases, an easement goes along the rear or side boundary of two properties so that each of two adjacent lots has an easement area 15 feet wide (total easement width of 30 feet). Pipes and manholes are usually in the approximate center of an easement.

Are gates allowed on easements?

In some locations, we allow gates across sewer easements. So that we will have safe access when needed, a gate must be:

  • easy to open,
  • at least 12 feet wide, and
  • centered in the easement.

If you are interested in installing a gate on an OWASA easement, please call our Wastewater Collection and Water Distribution Systems staff at 919-537-4292 before having the gate installed. 

Please note that if we damage a gate or other improvements or plantings during an emergency repair or other work on our easement, we are not responsible for repairing the gate.

We normally do not allow fences on our easements because they can affect our access, especially in an emergency, and may be damaged during our work. It is better to simply install a fence outside of easements.

Are fences allowed on easements?

We normally do not allow fences on our easements because they can affect our access, especially in an emergency, and may be damaged during our work. It is better to simply install a fence outside of easements.

Advice and information from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

 (919-962-0522; www.ncbg.unc.edu)

The Botanical Garden is interested in helping you with questions about plantings and other landscaping including those in easements. The Garden offers two opportunities for citizens to get free advice and information:

Citizens are invited to call or visit during  the  “public service” information hour between noon and 1 PM on weekdays other than holidays.

Please feel free to contact the Botanical Garden staff at 919-962-0522. The Garden’s Totten Center is on Laurel Hill Road in Chapel Hill, with  public parking accessible from Old Mason Farm Road.

Citizens are also welcome to talk with a master gardener on duty. Please call the Botanical Garden to find out when a master gardener will be available.

Please be sure to contact OWASA for approval of a planting plan before you do landscaping in an easement.

What are invasive exotic plants?

Invasive exotic plants are often imported plants which grow aggressively and may crowd out native plants. The kudzu vine is an example of an invasive plant.

For more information, please contact the Botanical Garden staff at 919-962-0522 or visit the Garden’s website, www.ncbg.unc.edu. The Garden’s website has considerable information about exotic plants including links to other sites.

Please contact us at 919-968-4421 or info@owasa.org about preparing a plan showing the location and types of plants. We will need to approve a planting plan before the landscaping is done. 

Before planting IN an easement...

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please be aware that:

  • We may need to do maintenance and improvements and to clear part or all of an easement even if a planting plan is approved.
  • We do not replace plantings or other improvements in an easement if we damage or trim them.
  • Therefore, it is prudent not to do expensive plantings or to make permanent improvements in an easement.

We normally clear only about 20 feet of a 30-foot-wide easement. Therefore, in many places, plantings are suitable in the outer five feet on each side of an easement.

The trees, shrubs and groundcovers suitable in an easement are typically shallow-rooted, drought-resistant, native/non-invasive and inexpensive.

A list of suitable plants is available by clicking here, sending an e-mail to info@owasa.org  or calling us at 919-968-4421 and asking for our Engineering staff.

Before planting NEAR an easement...

We may need to trim or cut plantings within our easements. Therefore, we recommend planting several feet away from the easement so that when fully grown, the tree or shrub will not extend into our easement and require us to trim it. You may wish to get advice from your tree or shrub supplier, etc. about the potential size of a tree or shrub at maturity to help you decide what and where to plant in an area near an easement.