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Unimproved Streets

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VIDEOS | The Cape Seal Process:

For more information, contact the Department of Public Services at 248-530-1700. 

Cape Seal FAQs and Resources

Other Resources


Frequently Asked Questions

What is an 'unimproved' road?
An unimproved road is a gravel road, with or without curbs, that has been maintained with chip or cape seal to provide relatively smooth and dust-free driving surface. Although the surface appear similar to asphalt, cape sealed surfaces are little more than a surface "crust" on a gravel road that reduces dust and inhibits moisture penetration.
What is cape seal treatment?
Cape seal is a two-stage roadway surface treatment that provides unimproved roads with a moisture-resistant seal and a smoother driving surface. The process involves rolling stone chips into a layer of liquid asphalt emulsion, followed later by an application of a slurry micro-surface. Cape seal is not a permanent solution; average life expectancy is less than 10 years.
Why is this maintenance assessed to property owners?
Prior to 1930, when many of Birmingham's neighborhoods were subdivided and opened for development, local streets were built as gravel roads with little if any provision of storm drainage. Streets were constructed with engineered pavement and drainage only when a majority of residents petitioned the City for such an improvement, the costs of which were then paid for through a special assessment on adjacent properties.

Neighborhoods that opted to retain gravel roads initially coordinated and assessed for maintenance through their respective neighborhood associations. Later, the City began initiating, coordinating, and assessing the maintenance on behalf of property owners.
How is the work assessed and how much will it cost?
Since 1948, the City policy for assessing street maintenance work on unimproved streets is conducted in accordance with the following:

  • Eighty-five percent of the front-foot cost for improvement are assessed on all property fronting on the improvement.
  • Twenty-five percent of the side-foot cost for improvement are assessed on all residential property siding on the improvement.
  • Eighty-five percent of the side-foot costs for improvement are assessed on improved business property siding on the improvement. 
  • Twenty-five percent of the side-foot costs for improvement are assessed on vacant business property siding on the improvement.
The balance of the cost, 15% and 75%, front footage and side footage respectively, is paid by the City.

For illustration, property owners in the 2018 project area paid an average of $11 per foot of parcel frontage, including the cost associated with a federal requirement to upgrade crosswalk ramps in the project areas to new ADA standards. Assessments for cape seal are billed as a one-time installment, sent 6-8 weeks after the completion of the project.
What are the limitations of cape seal maintenance?
Unimproved streets are not engineered roadways. Engineered, or improved roads are professionally designed to include proper drainage, grade, base construction, and other considerations. Because cape seal is only a surface treatments on unimproved roads, longevity cannot be guaranteed and the streets remain subject to weather- and traffic- related wear. Issues related to standing water, drainage, grade, and profile cannot be remedied through cape seal maintenance. It is important to remember that cape sale is not a "new street". Additionally, as long as a street remains "unimproved", residents can expect periodic maintenance assessments.
What if we want to install a better, more permanent pavement?
The Engineering Department has an established process that begins with a petition request presented by interested property owners. If sufficient interest is demonstrated, staff will host an informational meeting with residents to answer questions and address concerns. If support remains, the proposed project will be subject to formal public hearings to determine necessity and to establish the special assessment tax roll.

The cost of installing a permanent pavement is substantially more than cape seal maintenance. As a result, such projects are only initiated after a petition has been received indicating that over half of the owners on a street are in favor.

Because the process of obtaining support from neighbors for a permanent improvement can be time consuming, interested property owners should initiate the petition process before the formal public hearing of necessity. Streets preliminarily identified for inclusion in any cape seal maintenance project can be removed from consideration with sufficient notice and support.
What are the cost differences between cape seal maintenance and a full improvement?
Assessments for the most recent cape seal maintenance project averaged $11/ft. and can be expected every 7-10 years as part of the ongoing maintenance cycle. By comparison, the 2016 Villa Avenue paving project cost homeowners $165.86 per linear foot, plus an additional $8.44/ft2 for driveway approach removal and replacement. Assessments for improved roads are payable over ten years (subject to interest), and subsequent maintenance costs are covered by the City.
What are the benefits of an improved road?
In addition to providing a smoother, cleaner, more durable, and properly draining roadway, residents living on improved streets enjoy the benefit of street-side leaf pickup during the months of October and November. More importantly, all subsequent maintenance costs including patching, crack sealing, and, eventually, resurfacing or complete reconstruction, are the responsibility of the City.
Who can I contact with additional questions?
For specific questions regarding the upcoming cape seal project contact the Engineering Department at 248.530.1850.