Who really owns the sewer?

The alley running between West Brookline and West Canton Streets is known to the City as Alley 521. Both Alley 521 and the alley connecting West Brookline to West Canton at the north end of Alley 521, known to the City as Alley 522, are open to public use and are regularly used by private, commercial and municipal vehicles. The third Alley, known to the City as Alley 507 connects West Brookline and West Canton but is only accessible to foot traffic.

The assertion that ownership and responsibility for the sewer rests with the abutters is not supported by the evidence. Responsibility for maintenance and repair of the sewers should properly reside with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission [BWSC].

The alleys or passageways in question can be thought of as having two distinct portions defined by the original boundary [Boundary] between land created and owned by the City and that created and owned by the Boston Water Power Company [BWP]. The passageways south of the Boundary were created and owned by the City and the passageways north of the Boundary were created and owned by BWP.

After extensive research we believe that the portion of the sewer in Alley 521 south of the Boundary was built by the City on City land. In seeking definitive information from BWSC and from other City records we discovered
1. Alley 521 south of the Boundary is on land created by the City in the 1850s. The alley is clearly represented on the Plan of City Lands Sold
2. The Plan of the Proposed System of Sewerage for the Back Bay & Vicinity dated 1850 shows a proposed sewer for all of West Brookline Street which was built south of Tremont Street but was never extended across Tremont Street to the north.
3. House lots were sold in 1858 and dwellings were built on the Alley before 1860; the alley or “passageway” was not conveyed with the house lots.  These houses would have needed a sewer pipe and there was none built in West Brookline Street.
4. Manhole #392 is located behind 161 West Brookline, the northern-most dwelling built south of the Boundary and the apparent end point of the sewer south of the Boundary.
5. Manhole #494 is located in Alley 507. It reads BWSC and is situated on the City owned Tremont sewer.
6. The length of sewer in the alley between manholes 392 and 494 is represented on historical BWSC maps in the same manner as other ‘public’ sewers .
7. A visual inspection of manhole 392 facilitated by BWSC shows a bricked up opening of the sewer that is consistent with the location of the waterline when this section of the alley was filled by the City. It is known that original sewer lines emptied directly into the bay .

In response to a request for confirmation that the sewer line south of the Boundary does in fact belong to BWSC and is not private, John Sullivan, Chief Engineer at BSWC provided this answer in an email on August 20, 2014: “We have not confirmed if the pipe from 392 to 494 is BWSC property although we do not have information suggesting that it is private. I will make that determination once we have remapped the location of the manholes and obtained the invert elevations.”

In June 2015 BWSC officially acknowledged ownership of the southern end of the sewer.

The current map at BWSC does not accurately represent the sewers and manholes in these alleys and BWSC is unable to confirm where four houses built south of the Boundary on West Canton Street connect to a sewer. This makes it impossible for residents to know who to call if there is a problem.

North of the Boundary there are two manholes, one in Alley 521 behind 177 West Brookline (unmapped by BWSC, not numbered and buried under several inches of dirt and gravel) and the other in the intersection with Alley 522 (manhole #391). The sewer extends north of manhole #391 to serve six houses on West Canton Street. In addition there is a sewer that runs from #391 east out to the public sewer in West Canton. The sewer north of the boundary runs downhill from #391 to #392 and ultimately empties into the Tremont sewer.
As early as 1854 a City Document expressed the intention of any sewers built to later become part of the works of the City. In 1861 the City appointed “Back Bay Commissioners” who, in the 1860s laid out streets, grades and sewers to be built on privately owned and state land which were approved by all interested parties which included BWP, the City and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts among others. The maps from 1863 and 1864 labeled as such include sewers in all the alleys between Tremont and Columbus, from W Springfield to West Canton. In the same year an indenture between BWP and the City expressly states that sewers built by the former would become part of the sewer system of the City. This intention is repeated in the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Sewers of 1864 . The sewer plan was approved by the City with every intention and expectation that the City would ultimately take responsibility for the sewers built by BWP as part of the public infrastructure of the City.

As BWP created and sold land sewers were specifically addressed in the deeds for the land. In 1863 the lots on Alley 521 were sold with the following language included in the deeds: “Boston Water Power Company will build or cause to be built a common sewer and charge to each lot abutting one half of the expense of constructing the same: each sewer to be extended as the land shall be filled and to be maintained by said land Company but at the expense of said abuttors [sic] until the same is accepted by the City.” Ownership should have passed to the City long ago.

In 1869 the City took ownership of many streets in the now South End making them public streets. In the same year the City agreed to purchase from BWP the sewers built using fees collected from abutters for the sewers north of Columbus. West Brookline Street was conveyed by BWP to the City in 1867.  The sewer was built in the alley, according to the plan of the Back Bay Commissioners rather than in the street. According to the Tripartite Indenture of 1856, sewers could be built in either streets or passageways at the discretion of the Board of Aldermen. The intent was clearly that the City assume ownership of the sewers in Alley 522 and 521 north of the Boundary.


more Q&A with John Sullivan, Chief Engineer BWSC

numbered questions from Etta and Mark Rosen, answers from John Sullivan in italics follow each question:

1)You mentioned that our alley is not designated by the city as a private way open to public travel.  Can you tell us where that designation appears or who has jurisdiction over that designation?  Though the alley is a dead end it is regularly used by City vehicles and is open to all traffic.  In fact the cross alley is used on a daily basis by vehicles traveling between W Brookline and W Canton.  This designation seems inappropriate.

http://www.cityofboston.gov/publicworks/streetbook/default.asp  The Public Improvement Commission (housed in the Public Works Department) has jurisdiction over designation of public and private ways. I attached a link to the “official” city streetbook.  Questions should be directed to Amy Cording, Chief Engineer of PIC  (617-635-4900 could get you to her)

2)    You mentioned that if BWSC were to take over the sewer in this alley it would have to meet BWSC standards.  What are the BWSC standards?


3)    On the map you attached previously can you explain the section that is solid red and labeled 521? How is it different from the section of the sewer that appears as a broken line?  Do you know where the buildings on Tremont are connected?

I assume the buildings on Tremont are connected out the back to the public sewer we own in the alley. I have attached several pdfs of records. A-822L is the record drawing for the work in the Alley of the new public sewer constructed in 1916. You can see on this plan that they only connected to the old sewer in Alley 521. Both plans SW01 and BB14 show a section of sewer in a solid line. This could be interpreted that this segment of pipe is public, although there is no record of it being built by the city. BB14 clearly indicates that the remainder of the sewer is private. The demarcation that you see (where the dotted line meets the solid line) appears to be the demarcation of land ownership from the early days of the Boston Water Power Company.

4)    When new laterals have been connected to this “private” sewer line, BWSC has required an inspection of the new connection.  If it is a private sewer line, why is the City involved in overseeing this connection?

A-0822L alley BB14 alley SW01

Response from John Sullivan, Chief Engineer BWSC to our request for cleaning and inspection of our sewer:

I have investigated the issues raised in your June 8th email to me and have the following comments:

1) The existing sewer in Alley 521 (parallel to and between  West Brookline and West Canton Streets) running to Alley 522 (running from West Brookline to West Canton) and then out to West Canton Street is indicated on  our records to be a private sewer. I did an extensive search and could find no indication that the sewer was anything but private since its construction. At least one of our records suggest that is may be 16” x 24” in size.

2)      From all indications, this sewer is a gravity sewer. It may have excessive amounts of dirt or sludge in it causing it to flow sluggishly and remain in a surcharged condition. Although we operate many sewers that are oval in shape, rectangular sewers can work fine if they are clean.

3)      I did meet with the  South End Forum several months ago and discussed the issue of private sewers and our current programs available to those residential homes such as our betterment policy (http://www.bwsc.org/REGULATIONS/SEWER_BETTERMENT_POLICY.pdf). It does not appear that this private alley meets the requirements as spelled out in the policy (the private alley is not designated by the city as a private way open to public travel) However if this issue could be overcome by a petition to the Public Improvement Commission of the City, a petition for betterment could be made. One serious hurdle I would envision would be obtaining an easement from all property owners along the alley.

4)      As suggested in your email, BWSC has received a betterment petition from residents who abut West Haven Street (Rutland Square-West Newton Alley) where there is a private sewer. BWSC has discovered that the private sewer is heavily sedimented and thus cannot conduct any video inspection. The purpose of the video inspection was to ascertain who might be connected to the private sewer. Other means will be found to make that determination.

5)       I spoke to Mark Rosen earlier today and explained the above comments and suggested that I could send (in a separate email)  the contact information for some contractors that perform work for BWSC and could be contacted to provide you with pricing information to clean and video inspect your pipe. Although the sewer is very old, an inspection may reveal that only slight repairs are needed to keep it in good shape with regular cleanings. We have many pipes installed 130-140 years ago that are in fine shape, although they require occasional cleaning.

6)      I remain available for further discussion on this issue and I am open to discussing various alternatives

7)      I have attached a copy of an historical print with the current buildings superimposed to show our early record of private ownership.

alley map1)

8)      Please feel free to share this email with your neighbors or anyone else involved with this issue.

Does the City offer any assistance at all to private sewer owners?

There is a program called the Sewer Lateral Financial Assistance Program which may be available to us if BWSC decides that the private sewer can be considered in its entirety as a lateral.  Best case scenario, each household would be granted the assistance which cumulatively could then be applied to any work done on the private sewer line.  Details of the program can be found here.

Why should we pay for sewer maintenance when our neighbors on public sewers don’t?

There is no good answer for this. It is the way it is, an artifact of 19th century public works policies and homeowner attitudes. Changing the city’s policies is a worthy, but enormous, political battle. We believe the effort to have city services provided equitably is desirable and appropriate, and are working towards that end, but we recognize the risk in delaying the improvements until this might happen.

There’s a lot of sewage in that picture!

According to a recent conversation with a Boston Water and Sewer Department inspector, the sewer is of “summit” design meaning that the sewage moves in two directions – towards  Tremont  and towards Warren (to the City sewer line on W Canton) with the direction of flow starting approximately at the manhole located behind 161 W Brookline.   City maps show the sewage all flows towards Warren for the full length of the street so we don’t have definitive information.  In any case, sewage only moves when it is propelled by some force from one of the abutters – a flush, a shower, a load of laundry, etc.   It is not a gravity system, hence the high level of accumulated dirt, gravel, sludge and sewage visible in the picture.

Which houses are serviced by the sewer in the alley?

Although the alley serves both streets the antique brick sewer serves primarily the W Brookline side. The four buildings at the Tremont end of W Canton may also be connected in the alley.  Other W Canton buildings are connected to the public sewer on W Canton street except for the six houses on the Warren end of W Canton.  The three closest to Warren connect out the front to the sewer in W Canton, the other three (closest to the cross alley) are on their own lateral which connects at the manhole in the cross alley to the long line that runs from the Tremont street end of the alley.