Streets Less Traveled: 'Do not enter' signs raise legal question - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Streets Less Traveled: 'Do not enter' signs raise legal questions

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Some of the city's most prominent Uptown streets are considered off-limits to people who don't live there. "Private - Do Not Enter" signs are posted at the entrances of some neighborhoods – like the one on Rosa Park.

But are they really private?

At a quick glance, the Rosa Park sign looks officially sanctioned. It's bolted to a metal pole directly below a "No Parking" sign marked DPW for Department of Public Works.

Give it a closer look and you'll notice that the sign has nothing on it that points to a city department or neighborhood group.

The case is the same for two blocks of Richmond Place and Dunleith Court, where "Private - Do Not Enter" signs are posted.

"I grew up Uptown," said attorney Keith Hardie. "Everybody always understands that Rosa Park, Dunleith, Richmond were private streets. It's sort of the folk lore of Uptown New Orleans I guess.

Hardie began researching private streets Uptown after fighting for several years to force the city to remove a fence blocking Newcomb Boulevard - a fence that exists even though it's a public street.

Property owners on Newcomb began expressing an interest in buying the street to make it private. As part of his fight to keep it public, Hardie began looking at the city's assessments on private streets.

"So I wanted to look and see if I could figure out what the street was worth," he said.

Hardie checked out the assessor's online records, looking specifically at Rosa Park and Richmond Place.

"When I looked at those, they weren't assessed separately at all, so I don't know how they are assessed," Hardie said. "I'm assuming they are not being assessed at all, either because they aren't private or simply because somebody is failing to tax them."

FOX 8, along with our partners at The Lens began asking questions.

"Basically, if it's a private street we tax it," said Assessor Errol Williams.

He confirmed, though, that no taxes had ever been collected on Rosa Park, Dunleith or the two blocks of Richmond Place. But according to the Department of Property Management, all three streets are private.

City Hall even provided FOX 8 with the declaration of servitude for the streets, which basically establishes ownership. All of them date back more than a century.

For example, the servitude for Rosa Park was made in 1893. It reads "is hereby perpetually established as a roadway and garden for the exclusive use of lots #3-20." In other words, the owners of those lots would have exclusive rights to the street.

In the case of other private streets, like Audubon Place, the street is owned by a homeowners association, the Audubon Place Commission.

FOX 8 couldn't find any evidence of homeowners associations for Rosa Park, Dunleith or Richmond Place. Williams said if these streets are private, he doesn't know who to tax.

"Because one of them indicates on Dunleith the widower donated the streets as a private park," he said. "And my abstractors would have go and determine who is the last owner on record. You don't want to send a tax bill to somebody who you're not going to get any money out of anyway."

The assessor's office also discovered that the city attorney had actually rendered an opinion back in 1992 concerning the city's responsibility to provide maintenance on one of the streets. At the time property owners on Richmond Place wanted street improvements.

The city attorney's opinion was that the city has no responsibility to provide maintenance on a private street. But also in the opinion, the city attorney wrote, "a street never formally dedicated may be considered a 'public' street if maintained by the city for three years."

"In all cases, I'm almost certain the city has provided maintenance on these streets," Williams said.

FOX 8 then reached out to the city once again to find out if that was the case. In a statement, the city says the streets in question have not been maintained consistently over a period of three years.

While the assessor is vowing to continue his investigation, he says no matter what - change will come.

"We're not concluded with this process," Williams said. "So whether they are taxed or not taxed, that's become more of a legal issue, and then the question is who should we tax. And when you're talking about 100-plus years. The heirs to whoever had the property - that requires more research that my office has to do."

The assessor says he will reach out to the attorney general for an opinion on the matter. Our partners at The Lens have more information on their website.

Copyright 2014 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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