When activists get organized to clean up a natural area, like the biodiverse banks of a creek, everybody benefits, including the people who own the land. However, you still need to get permission from property owners before you can undertake an environmental cleanup on private land. If you’re not sure who owns the land, a few minutes using Google Maps and local government websites will help you identify landowners and ask their permission to intervene on their land.


Photo by Zsolt Zsigmond.

Finding an Address

You’d be surprised at how many vacant lots are private properties with a recorded street address. In Google Maps, zoom in on the piece of land you want to clean up, and click around the borders of the cleanup area. Google Maps will show you the street address in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Sometimes, you’ll find that an environmental cleanup actually covers two or more properties.

Finding the Owner

The first thing you need to know about the address is which county it’s in. The United States Postal Service has an online tool you can use to get this information. Enter the address you got from Google Maps, and then click on “Mailing Industry Details”. This will show you the county that has jurisdiction over that address, as well as some statistics that you don’t need to worry about.

Now, you’ll want to go to the clerk and recorder’s website for whatever county you found with the USPS tool. These websites will generally have a “Property Search” tool which allows you to access the public records of property ownership. Each county’s website functions a little differently, but you can usually access property appraisal data or title data within a few pages. This will include the names of the owners.

Mail Art From Finland

Photo by koiart66 (Flickr).

US Mail

Photo by Steve Johnson.

Contacting the Owners

In some cases, asking a property owner’s permission can be as easy as knocking on the door. However, there are times when you need to address a polite letter to the property owner or give a corporate owner a call at its business address. Always respect property owners’ privacy, and avoid making property owners uncomfortable by calling individuals at home or going to great lengths to find their e-mail addresses. When you contact them politely, landowners are generally happy to let people clean up and beautify their properties!

beautiful knoxville hills

Photo by Murphy McCracken.

Your community’s watershed includes not only parks and open spaces, but backyards, office parks, and undeveloped lots owned by developers. Being respectful of these landowners and helping the environment at the same time is easy, thanks to these simple online tools.

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