Most of us have heard of a “paper moon” and may even know the first few bars of the song made famous by Natalie Cole. A “paper road” however is an archaic phrase many of us are unfamiliar with. So what exactly is a paper road? Just like a paper moon is a pretend moon, a paper road is one that exists only on paper. These roads are ones that were designed as part of a development though were never actually constructed.
When land developers plot out a subdivision or business complex, they don’t just carve a piece of land into lots. They also have to figure out how the road layout, how water and sewer lines can be brought to each lot in the shortest distance possible, and where to locate all the other services such as street lights, sidewalks, public areas, parking lots, and stop signs. If a subdivision is being developed in phases or is one of multiple parcels being constructed in an area, the developer must also determine how vehicles and pedestrians will move between the two subdivisions.
In new subdivisions, city planners require developers to build these proposed roads even when the neighboring subdivision hasn’t been built yet. This explains those paved streets you see that dead end into a fence or an old cornfield. However, in older subdivisions and some rural areas, these proposed roadways weren’t required to be paved, hence the term “paper road” since they only existed on paper.
Two ways in which paper roads can impact property owners.
Even though the paper road in your subdivision may have been landscaped in grass these past 20 years or so, standard road setbacks and right-of-ways are still applicable. What this means for a homeowner looking to expand his home, build a fence, plants trees, or add onto his deck or patio is that the paper road’s setbacks will determine the location of the improvements. It also means that the homeowner has no claim on the land, even though he’s been mowing and watering it.
1. Right of way distance Right of way is legally granted access (or public thoroughfare) across land. The right of way isn’t limited to just the road width but also includes enough space for (future) curbs, gutters, and sidewalks. For a homeowner living next to a paper road, you can not plant a tree, erect a fence, or build over the right of way area since the land belongs to the city.
2. Set back distance Setbacks are the distance a house or other structure can be built from each other, the alley, and the roadway. In a subdivision with 30 feet front yard setbacks for example, this means that any improvement you make to your home can not be within 30 feet of the paper road.
While adhering to right-of-way distances and setbacks for a non-existent road may seem silly, city planners will treat a paper road as seriously as if it were made of asphalt to avoid any problems that could arise in the future. After all, even a paper road will punch through someday and when that happens, it’s best for everyone involved if nothing is blocking the way.