A couple in Las Vegas once discovered a national treasure while digging in their backyard. The couple wanted to dig a hole for building a pool. Instead, they found ancient fossils that date back to 6,000 years ago (source).
Maybe you won’t find a buried treasure in your backyard, but you’ll find water pipes, gas pipelines, and electricity cables. For major improvements, a permit is required when digging in your backyard.
Permit requirements depend on the depth and width of the hole you plan to dig in your backyard. When you’re planting seeds for your garden, you probably won’t need a permit. However, you’ll need one to build a pool. Legally, you should contact your building department beforehand to be safe.
Practice safe digging to avoid getting fined. It may seem simple, but there are some hidden dimensions in digging a simple hole in your backyard.
Before you lift your shovel or launch your heavy machinery, know your rights.
How Deep Can You Legally Dig on Your Property?
According to a legal doctrine, you own both the space above your property and the earth underneath it. Without getting into a legal debate, you have the right to dig your backyard as you please.
But, just as you can’t prevent airplanes from flying above your house, you’re required to get a permit to dig your backyard. Simply put, you may own your backyard, but you don’t own the utility lines going under it. It’s the city’s responsibility to maintain those utility lines.
Those utility lines are the main reason why you can’t just dig in your backyard. If you run into an electricity cable, you might hurt yourself. You might also accidentally cut your neighbor’s internet cable and might breach the main gas line feeding your town.
As you can see, it’s not something to take lightly. Things like that happen every day.
The larger your project, the bigger its impact on your property, and the more likely you are to need a permit when adding something that will affect your property taxes.
The laws governing backyard digging are statewide and nationwide. But, you’ll most likely deal with the local building codes in your city.
And so, you can build whatever you want in your backyard after obtaining the permit.
It’s not a question of checking the legal backyard digging limits. Your digging will not only affect your property, but also your neighbor’s, and possibly your whole area.
In the end, it’s not only about the permit. When your new project affects your neighbors, you might need their permission as well.
What does that mean to you? It simply means: forget about the legal limits. No matter how small or big the hole you want to dig is, start by contacting the authorities. Send them all the information about your project, and let them guide you.
That way, you can stay on the right side of the law while completing the project safely.
How Deep Can You Dig Without a Permit?
When you get your permit, you can dig as much as needed to complete your project. The planning and building department will usually specify the depth you can dig. Once the digging is complete, they’ll inspect it to make sure it’s safe.
It’s not a crime to dig in your backyard unless you threaten your community’s safety. If your digging harms your neighbors, they might sue you for negligence. Meanwhile, with a permit, you can avoid the ordeal and complete your project successfully.
So, the digging depends on the soil’s condition and the depth required for your foundation. For example, in the UK, the legal depth is 6 inches. After that, if there are precious metals under the ground, it belongs to the government.
For instance, it’s perfectly legal to dig a grave for your pet, but if the digging goes deeper than that, you’ll need a permit. Also, keep in mind that pet burial might be illegal in some states.
Is It Against the Law to Dig Without Calling 811?
The law doesn’t define a minimum or maximum digging limit in your backyard. However shallow or deep, you should call 811 before starting to dig.
You should also call your local building authorities before you dig any hole for any purpose.
In the real world, contacting authorities before digging a hole in your private backyard seems far-fetched. It may seem to be an innocent activity, especially when you own the land.
In the U.S., as opposed to the UK, you can dig up to 12 inches in your backyard without a permit, and it’s more reasonable to stay at the 4 inches deep limit.
You should also stay within your backyard and not dig in your neighbor’s lot, especially without permission. Additionally, you should avoid digging the street pavement around your backyard.
Any digging outside your backyard, no matter how shallow, will require a permit. Not doing so will get you fined and possibly jailed.
You never know what’s under your backyard until the legal inspection, and you never want to know after it’s too late. Thus, before doing any digging, call 811 and know your rights.
There’s a serious probability that gas, water, or sewer lines are running deep under your backyard, and digging deep will most likely break these lines. If that happens, you’ll find yourself in a serious conflict with the authorities.
There’s no telling what lies under the ground. Like the Las Vegas couple, you might find ancient fossils that have been buried for thousands of years.
If you’re living in a residential area, you must also check for zoning limits. Zoning laws determine the land use around the city. For instance, if you’re going to build a shed, greenhouse, or pool, you’ll need a land-use permit.
Breaking these laws leads to serious consequences, like the demolishing of your building and your forbidding from using it. So, you need to check the zoning ordinances in your city before digging a hole in your backyard. Even if you live in the countryside, you’ll find that zoning laws still apply.
All in all, there’s no legal punishment for not calling 811 before digging. But if you dig without calling, you might break the law in the process. Thus, calling them first is the right thing to do.
How Deep Can I Dig Before Calling 811?
According to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), unauthorized digging was responsible for a $30 billion infrastructure damage in 2019 (source).
The CGA is the association that takes care of the underground utility industry. It’s a membership organization with more than 17,000 individuals, organizations, and sponsors working together to prevent infrastructure damage.
If you wish to dig a hole in your backyard, they’re the organization you want to contact. However, you don’t have to do that yourself as your contractor can call and get the permit on your behalf.
As previously stated, regardless of how deep you want to dig, you must contact 811 before proceeding. Digging depths differ by state, so you might want to check the CGA map to find the right information for your area.
Some utility lines are only a few inches deep. Digging without knowing what’s under your backyard can pose a real risk.
You never know what underground utilities are buried under the backyard, no matter whether you’re a contractor or a homeowner. Since there are 100+ billion feet of underground lines in the United States, you can’t assume that there’s none under your property.
When you call 811, you’ll get to know the steps to obtain a permit based on your state. Plus, the process is not that complicated. It goes as follows:
- Dial the 811 one-call center and notify them about your project. Alternatively, you can make a request online 2-3 days before you wish to start digging.
- Then, the one-call center will notify the utility companies and inquire about any installed lines in your area. The response time takes a week at most.
- Once the operators respond and you get the green light, double-check your state laws to stay on the safe side.
- Once the utility company marks your backyard utility, you can start digging. If your backyard is marked, you can’t use heavy machinery to dig more than 18-24 inches. That’s why you should follow step #3 to make sure you know your rights.
There’s no project too big nor too small for calling 811 and doing your homework. Your project more likely won’t be as large as making permanent changes to the infrastructure. So, don’t hesitate to call this number and get your paperwork straight.