A path is not a street

by Gary Taylor and Luke Seaberg

Cornbelt Running Club v. City of Riverdale

Iowa Court of Appeals, March 2, 2022

The City of Riverdale fenced and gated a portion of a public right of way adjacent to South Kensington Street to prevent bicyclists and runners from using a five-foot-wide asphalt-paved path within the right of way as a short cut between two recreational trails.

In the above diagram, the path is the dark strip ending in a triangle and the fence is the line bisecting the dark strip.

Cornbelt Running Club (Club) sued the city, claiming the fence amounted to an improper closure of a street, thereby creating a public nuisance under Iowa Code 657.2(5), which states:

The following are nuisances:
….
5. The obstructing or encumbering by fences, buildings, or otherwise the public roads,
private ways, streets, alleys, commons, landing places, or burying grounds

Iowa Code 657.2

The city countered that a fence is only a nuisance if, in the context of this case, it crosses a street, and the path is not a street because it is not open to vehicles. Relying on its interpretation of state statutes defining “street,” “public roads,” and others the district court concluded that the path was not, in fact, a street, and therefore no nuisance could exist. The Club appealed.

The Court of Appeals determined the following statutory definitions were relevant to the case:

“Road” or “street” means the entire width between property lines through private property or the designated width through public property of every way or place of whatever nature if any part of such way or place is open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for purposes of vehicular traffic.

Iowa Code 306.3(8)

“Vehicle” means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway. “Vehicle” does not include:
a. Any device moved by human power, including a low-speed electric bicycle….

Iowa Code 321.1(90)

The Court of Appeals concluded that the district court was correct. Te paved path was not a street because it was not open to the public as a matter of right for vehicular traffic; therefore, the fence across the path could not be deemed a nuisance. The Club argued that previous cases found sidewalks to be part of a street, but the Court distinguished those cases as addressing sidewalks that ran alongside streets, which was not the case here.

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