Nova Scotia

Bridgewater family in limbo after learning water pipe goes through 'no man's land'

Amanda Stewart and her children can no longer live in their home because of a dispute with the town of Bridgewater over a leaking water line.

Amanda Stewart and her children can no longer live in their home because of dispute with town

Amanda Stewart can't live in her Bridgewater home and can't sell it either because of a dispute over a water line. (CBC)

A woman in Bridgewater, N.S., says she can no longer live in her home and can't sell it either because of a dispute over her water line.

The town discovered the water line leading to Amanda Stewart's house was leaking in May. It put in a temporary line above ground, but turned the water off on Oct. 24 because temperatures at night were below freezing.

Since then Stewart, her two children and her pets have been staying at either her parents' home or a friend's house.

The leak in the water pipe is beyond Stewart's property line, so she initially believed it would be the town's responsibility to fix it.

However, the town informed her she would have to fix it at her own expense because it is not on municipal property either. Stewart said the town estimated it would cost at least $8,000 for the repair.

Land belongs to no one

The issue is that the water line runs from Stewart's property through a parcel of land that technically belongs to no one.

Stewart insists that her deed only lets her drive along the right-of-way over the lane, and makes no mention of the water line. (CBC)

Stewart and the owners of two neighbouring homes use a shared lane to access their properties from the public street. But town officials say no one pays taxes on that parcel of land, and the original deed goes back to 1919.

A contractor who has worked on water lines in Bridgewater for almost 40 years calls it a "unique situation."

"I've never come across something like this," said Paul Mailman. "It's unusual. It's like no man's land."

The public service commission operating the town's water utility insists Bridgewater is only responsible for the water main and laterals to the edge of the street.

"The public service commission sets a standard and applies it to all homes," said Tim Hiltz, Bridgewater's environmental manager. 

"And from the street to the home is the responsibility of the homeowner."

Contractors balk at the job

The line that is leaking runs across a neighbour's property, so the town recommends Stewart reroute the line along the shared lane.

Stewart continues to hope that the town will assume responsibility for the leaking pipe and bring the water line up to her home. (CBC)

But Stewart said she has contacted several contractors and none of them will take the job because she does not own the land where the water line would be rerouted and the work could affect her neighbour's line.

"They don't want to take on the liability and I don't blame them," said Stewart.

That's not how Bridgewater sees the situation.

"My understanding is if she has a right-of-way [on the lane] she has a right to repair the line," said Hiltz, "She would just need to repair the lane once the water-line work is done."

Stewart complained to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, which regulates the province's utilities. But in a ruling made on Oct. 15, the board supported Bridgewater's public service commission.

The board agreed water service cannot be provided using the "typical configuration" where the lateral connects to a pipe on the homeowner's property.

But it also said there is nothing in the regulations that says the Bridgewater utility must run or maintain a water line beyond the street. The board did recognize that there may be legal issues involving property access, but said they are outside its jurisdiction.

Stewart has also turned to the provincial ombudsman who concluded she would have to work with the public service commission.

Deed makes no mention of the water line

Stewart insists that her deed only lets her drive along the right-of-way over the lane, and makes no mention of the water line. 

"According to a lawyer there's nothing in my deed that says I have utility rights," she said.

The chair of the Real Estate Lawyers' Association could not speak to this particular case, but agreed there is a difference between a right-of-way to access a property and service easements to maintain infrastructure on a property.

"Most modern deeds make a distinction between the two," said Lola Doucet.

Stewart admits she did not fully understand who owned the shared lane when she bought the property.

"Actually I wasn't sure what that was," said Stewart. "I thought it was a driveway that my neighbour owned. But it's not a private road. It's an abandoned piece of land."

Stewart still regularly has lunch at her home but has to bring water jugs with her. She continues to hope that the town will assume responsibility for the leaking pipe and bring the water line up to her home.

"It's staggering to me that the town won't bring the water to my property line," said Stewart. 

"Because technically there shouldn't be unowned land and that would solve my problem."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pam Berman

Reporter

Pam Berman is CBC Nova Scotia's municipal affairs reporter. She's been a journalist for almost 35 years and has covered Halifax regional council since 1997. That includes four municipal elections, 19 budgets and countless meetings. Story ideas can be sent to pam.berman@cbc.ca

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