The City of Ottawa wants control of its laneways back, and residents who are occupying one may have to pay an annual fee.
On Wednesday the city's transportation committee approved a new urban lanes encroachment policy.
Under the framework, homeowners who have built fences, sheds or other structures on what were once municipal laneways will be asked to pay a nominal fee, an amount city staff said won't exceed $10 or $15 per year.
The rules will also apply for people who live in homes where any previous owners built onto laneways.
But if the city needs the property back, perhaps for vehicular access to a new development or upgrades to underground infrastructure, the homeowner will be required to cede the land.
City staff said the new framework cleans up what had been a patchwork of rules and policies.
"We've been very soft with the policy approach. We are not proposing to specifically and proactively hunt people down. The fees are there already, it's been part of the encroachment bylaw for at least 10 years, so there's no change there," said Alain Miguelez, the city's program manager of intensification and zoning.
"I think it was high time to bring order and structure to something that has been rather disorganized administratively, for the simple reason that whether we do this or not these issues exist, continue to exist."
In some cases, homeowners can opt to buy property
Peter Clark is the councillor for Rideau-Rockliffe, where many backyards have crept past their property lines over the years.
"People take liberties, and we need to ensure that when they take liberties, they understand that they don't own the property," Clark said Wednesday. "… It's just like anything else, you're going to have to pay rent if you want to use property."
Homeowners will be on the hook for the cost of a survey if one is required, which can cost $1,000 or more.
There will also be an option for homeowners to buy the encroached-upon land from the city in some cases.
The city said it owns about 64 kilometres of back lanes, mostly inside the Greenbelt.