Sanitary Sewer Easements

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Overview Sanitary Sewer Mains and Plants In My Yard State Law and Raleigh's Easements If I have fences or sheds in the easement that have been there for a long time, am I "grandfathered" and allowed to keep them?

What they Mean to You

Raleigh Water is dedicated to providing critical wastewater services that protect both the environment and public health.  The original sanitary sewer system was constructed in  downtown Raleigh during the 1890s, which discharged directly into Walnut Creek and Crabtree Creek without any treatment process.  Today, the sanitary sewer system is comprised of approximately 2,500 miles of sanitary sewer mains and over 100 pump stations which convey wastewater to three resource recovery facilities.  The system collects wastewater from approximately 200,000 sewer accounts in the City of Raleigh and the surrounding communities of Garner, Wake Forest, Rolesville, Knightdale, Wendell, and Zebulon.  The population of this service area is near 600,000 people.

The maintenance of the sanitary sewer system is required to ensure that it operates properly and wastewater is not discharged to the environment.  The maintenance of all of this system is conducted by the Sewer Maintenance Division of Raleigh Water.  Sanitary sewer mains are primarily located underground and are connected by a series of manholes that are either at or slightly above ground level.   In order to maintain the system, Raleigh Water staff must be able to have access to the manholes at all times.  These manholes will either be located in public right-of-way or in easements on private property.  Of the 2,500 miles of sanitary sewer, approximately 930 miles are located on private property in easements.  Inadequate operation and maintenance of the sanitary sewer system can cause failures in the system, which result in sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). 


What is a sanitary sewer easement and how do I know if one exists on my property?

Easements are dedicated portions of private property dedicated for public use.   Sanitary sewer easements overlay the location of a sewer main on a property and provide the City right of access to the property for inspection and maintenance purposes, which is a requirement of the Sewer Collection System Operating Permit.  They are developed at the time the utility is constructed or when a piece of property is subdivided for use.  Sewer easements are often shown on property surveys and descriptions of land such as a deed.

Why must the City maintain these sanitary sewer mains in my yard?

The City is required by state and federal laws to prevent sanitary sewer overflows and regularly inspect and clear the sewer mains owned by the City.  Sewer Maintenance staff work to maintain and clean a portion of the 2,500 miles of sewer line each year, about 930 miles of which run through sanitary sewer easements on private property.

What is a Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO)?

A SSO is the discharge of raw wastewater from the sewer system out onto the ground or into a waterway.  This is a release of waste onto private or public property and adjacent creek or stream.  These spills have various causes, the principal ones being the buildup of fats, oils, grease and blockages from inappropriate materials such as flushed wipes and paper towels.   Raleigh Water's preemptive maintenance program greatly reduces the number of SSOs that occur, but not all SSOs can be prevented during heavy rainfall events or if inappropriate materials cause a blockage.  Raleigh Water usually experiences approximately 35 such occurrences each year and continues to work to further reduce this number.


Sanitary Sewer Mains and Plants In My Yard

Why must the City cut trees and plants away from the easement?

Trees and brush must be cut away from these areas to maintain access to the sewer line for maintenance work such as inspection and cleaning.  The clearing also allows the City to quickly access these areas with its equipment in the event of an emergency and minimize the impacts of a possible SSO.

Will new plants and trees be replanted by the City?

Raleigh Water is not required to replace vegetation if it hinders future access to the easement. Upon clearing the easement the damaged areas will be re-graded and spread with mulch or sewn with grass seed.  The easement will then be maintained as necessary to allow for continued access.

Why do these trees need to be cut down if there is no emergency?

It saves valuable time in responding to emergencies such as SSOs if Raleigh Water staff have immediate access to these areas rather than having to clear the easement at the time of response. 

How does the City select easements for clearing?

The goal is to have 100 percent of our easements accessible for maintenance work.  There are numerous older easements with heavy growth that are selected for clearing based upon maintenance records for the area and if SSOs have been a reoccurring issue.

Will the City cut and remove all of the trees and plants from within the easement?

Yes in most cases, however Raleigh Water's staff will discuss the treatment of "boundary trees" along the edge of the easement with the property owner.  These trees can be left in place until the sewer main is replaced by the City under the following conditions:

  1. The existing sewer main in the easement when inspected by the City's staff shows no signs of tree or plant root intrusion into the main or manholes that will eventually cause a blockage and sewer overflow.
  2. The "boundary trees" are located within the easement such that they do not prohibit the City's use of the easement to access the sewer main or manholes or cause damage to the main or manholes if the trees topple over during high wind conditions.

State Law and Raleigh's Easements

What laws and regulations apply in these situations?

In 1999, the State Legislature passed the North Carolina Clean Water Act of 1999, which requires municipalities to prevent sewage from spilling and entering waterways and punishes agencies for allowing leaks to occur which they could prevent.  This legislation requires North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and its Division of Water Resources (DWR) to develop and issue sewer collection system operational permits.  The City of Raleigh operates its system under permit number WQCS00002.

What does the City's Sanitary Sewer Collection System Permit say?

The permit describes how the sanitary sewer system should be operated and maintained: 

  1. The Operator must develop and implement a program for cleaning of all sewer lines and that a minimum of 10% of the system shall be cleaned each year.
  2. Rights-of-way and/or easements shall be properly maintained to allow accessibility to the wastewater collection system.
  3. The operator must inspect the system regularly to reduce the risk of malfunction and deterioration which could lead to release of wastes to the environment or threaten human health.
  4. The operator shall inspect all high priority lines, such as those which parallel a creek, etc., at least once per every six month period of time.

Failure of the City to follow these guidelines and regulations subjects the City to civil penalties (fines) and can jeopardize the City's permit.

What are the City of Raleigh Codes related to these issues?

The City of Raleigh Code Section 8-2012 states the following:

(b) No person shall damage, obstruct, or cover a manhole or the City's water or sanitary sewer system.

(c) No person shall plant trees, shrubs, or other plants within a water or sewer easement without prior written approval from the Director of the Public Utilities Department.

(d) No person shall place any part of a structure or any permanent equipment within a water or sewer easement without prior written approval from the Director of the Public Utilities Department.  Prohibited structures include buildings, houses, decks, garages, tool or storage sheds, swimming pools, walls, and fences.  Prohibited permanent equipment includes air conditioning units and heat pumps.

If I have fences or sheds in the easement that have been there for a long time, am I "grandfathered" and allowed to keep them?

No, but where possible, Raleigh Water will work with property owners to allow existing fences to remain that are parallel to the direction of the sanitary sewer main under the following conditions:

  1. The fence has not damaged the sanitary sewer main and all manholes are fully visible and not obstructed.
  2. The fence is constructed of wood and/or metal materials that can easily be removed by City equipment such as a rubber tired backhoe.
  3. The City is not responsible for any damage to the fence at anytime and if the fence is removed by the City, it is not responsible for costs to replace the fence outside of the easement.
  4. The fence is considered a temporary, non-conforming use of the City's sanitary sewer easement and as such once removed by the property owner or the City during a sewer emergency, the fence can not be reconstructed within the City's existing sanitary sewer easement.


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Sewer Maintenance