by Gary Taylor
McKenzie County v. Reichman
(North Dakota Supreme Court, January 24, 2012)
In 2006, McKenzie County sued Reichman, alleging a road that “Flat Rock Road” which crosses her ranch had been used by the public in an open, general, continuous, and uninterrupted manner for at least 20 successive years and seeking a prescriptive easement and formal declaration as a public road. According to Reichman, the public’s use of the road through her ranch significantly increased after she purchased the ranch in 2000, including an increase in traffic attributable to the oil industry. As a result, she sought to restrict public use of the road, including placing gates or cattle guards across the road as part of her livestock operation. She claimed any public use of the road was permissive, and there had been no continuous, adverse, hostile, and uninterrupted use of the road for the prescriptive 20-year period. She counterclaimed for damages for inverse condemnation. After a trial, the district court declared a prescriptive easement in favor of McKenzie County, and Reichman appealed.
The North Dakota Supreme Court began by noting that a party claiming a road by prescription must establish by clear and convincing evidence the general, continuous, uninterrupted, and adverse use of the road by the public under a claim of right for 20 years. The court then recited the extensive presentation of the history of the land and the road dating back to 1920 presented at the trial court. Important to the court was the fact that the County constructed a graded road in the 1950s with the knowledge and consent of the adjacent landowners, including the then-owner of the Reichman property. The County provided maintenance for the road, including grading, plowing snow, placing scoria on the road, and installing culverts and bridges. Testimony was presented that the road was only blocked for short periods when ranchers moved livestock. According to the court, the 20-year period for measuring a prescriptive use begins when a burden is placed on the land and relates back to the inception of the adverse use which, in this case, was the point in time in the 1950s when the County first constructed a graded road. “The expenditure of public funds for construction and maintenance of a road is evidence of an adverse use….Gates across roads are indicative of permissive (contrasting to an adverse) use, but gates for working livestock which do not deny access or interfere with public traffic do not mandate a permissive use.” Therefore. the court determined that McKenzie County had, in fact, established a prescriptive easement and the right to a formal declaration of Flat Rock Road as a public road.
The court further stated that the width of a prescriptive easement for a road is not limited to that portion of the road actually traveled, but may include the shoulders and ditches that are needed and have actually been used to support and maintain the traveled portion of the road during the prescriptive period. Considering the district court declared the road to be a public road “as it presently exists,” the Supreme Court remanded the case for a determination of the prescriptive road either by width, by metes and bounds, or by other suitable description as the road existed at the commencement of the action.