There are two methods by which the street vacation process may be started. One is by petition of the property owners that abut the street area to be vacated. The petition must be signed by two-thirds of the property owners that abut the area to be vacated. The petition is presented to the city council. The second method is for the city council to initiate a street vacation by resolution.
Must a public hearing be held before a street may be vacated?
Yes. Whichever method is utilized to initiate the street vacation, a public hearing must be held. This may be held before the full council or before a subcommittee of the council. If held before a subcommittee, then the subcommittee must report its recommendation to the full council for a final decision.
Who owns the vacated property?
Normally the abutting property owners become the owners of the vacated property because the property owner on each side of the street owns to the centerline. This is because in most situations the street dedication on a plat merely grants an easement to the city for public travel and the underlying fee ownership of the street remains with the abutting property owners. Therefore, when the city vacates its easement, the abutting property owners on each side of the street become the owners of the land.
What if the city owned the underlying fee to the street area?
Although this is rare, occasionally the city actually owns the underlying fee to the street area as well as the easement for public travel. If this is the case, then when the property is vacated the city becomes the fee owner of the vacated area. Ownership can be determined by a title search if there is doubt.
May the city charge the abutting property owners a fee for the street vacation?
Yes. Many cities charge an initial fee for the street vacation application. In addition, state law allows the city to require compensation for the vacated easement in an amount that does not exceed one-half the appraised value of the area so vacated. RCW 35.79.030.
May the city retain an easement for underground utilities that may be in the vacated area?
Yes. The ordinance vacating the street may provide that the city retain an easement to construct, repair and maintain public utilities in the vacated area.
Must the vacation be granted by ordinance?
Yes, this is required. A certified copy of the ordinance granting the vacation must be recorded by the clerk and a copy must be sent to the office of the auditor of the county in which the land is located.
May a portion of the street be vacated?
Yes. It is not necessary that the entire street area be vacated. For example, a strip along one side of the street may be vacated if that is all that is desired or needed by the abutting property owner. Also, the full street along part of a block may be vacated.
May a street that abuts a body of water be vacated?
State law prohibits a city or town from vacating a street if any portion of the street of alley abuts a body of fresh or salt water unless very specific procedures are followed. These procedures are outlined in RCW 35.79.035 and should be checked very carefully before attempting to vacate any such street.
Is there a statute that provides for an automatic vacation of streets if they are not opened for public travel within a certain time period?
Not any longer. There was an old statute which was enacted in 1889 which provided for the automatic vacation of county roads which remained unopened for five years after being platted or dedicated. This statute was amended in 1909 so that it no longer applied to platted streets and alleys. Therefore, this statute only applied to roads which were county roads and remained unopened for five years after dedication between 1889 and 1909. Obviously, this is not going to apply in very many situations but occasionally reference is still made to the provision and it is found to be applicable.