Town properly used its police powers to build roads and levy special assessments after developer failed obligations

First State Bank v Town of Omro
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, November 11, 2015

Barony subdivision is a 74 lot subdivision that received plat approval in 2004. Only 9 lots were developed over the course of the next 5 years, and in 2009 First State Bank took control of the remaining 65 lots in lieu of foreclosure. At the time of foreclosure, sections of the roads in the subdivision were not paved. In 2013 Omro authorized the roads to be finished and specially assessed all the lots within the subdivision for the cost of completing the roads, which was $219,641.60. The Bank challenged Omro’s authority to levy the special assessments.  The issue on appeal was whether a municipality may use its police powers to build roads and levy special assessments against the land after a developer fails their obligation to build the roads.

The Bank claimed that the assessment was improper because: (1)the development agreement required the developer to pay for the roads; (2) the Ordinance prohibited the road work because 70% of the subdivision was not developed; (3) at the time the special assessments were imposed the subdivision’s roads were privately owned; (4) three lots were not specially benefited because they do not abut Omro’s roads; and (5) the wording of the preliminary and final resolutions did not conform with § 66.0703. The circuit court provided summary judgment to Omro.

The first two arguments asked whether Omro acted outside of their authority granted by the legislature. The Bank argued that the Ordinance says that the money for paving roads “will come directly from the developer, from a special assessment on the development, or another method approved by the Town Board” and that “the development agreement will dictate the method of payment for the paving.” The Bank argues that the developer is the only recourse for payment based on this language in the Ordinance and in the developer agreement. However, the language in these documents does not limit Omro’s power to levy special assessments. Just because the agreed upon payment did not work out does not mean alternatives are not allowed as long as Omro follows the appropriate procedures in state law permitting special assessments.

The Bank argued that because 70% of the subdivision was not developed the special assessment could not be levied.  The court pointed out, however, that there is language in the Ordinance that allows for a different schedule if Town Engineer and the Town Board recommend a different action, which they did.

The last three arguments asked whether Omro failed to follow the requirements of Wis. Stat. §66.0703.  The Bank argued that because the lots were privately owned, the special assessment was not for public improvement.  This argument missed the point that the roads within the subdivision were public property.  State law provides that all roads or streets shown on a final plat are dedicated to the public unless clearly marked as private, which these were not.  Therefore, the assessments were clearly for a public improvement.

Next, the Bank argued that three of the lots do not receive “special benefits” from the project because they do not abut the newly paved roads and should not be specially assessed because of this. The Bank demonstrated a genuine issue of fact. The circuit court erred in granting summary judgment on this issue.

The court affirmed the decision ratifying the special assessment of the lots that benefit from the road project, but reverse the decision that found that the lots that do not abut the roads received special benefits and remanded that issue to the lower court.

Montana landowners successfully claim reverse adverse possession of county road created by public prescriptive easement

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Letica Land Company, LLC v Anaconda-Deer Lodge County
Montana Supreme Court, November 17, 2015

Letica Land Company (Letica) and Don McGee appeal a lower court’s ruling that two stretches of a road crossing their properties in Anaconda-Deer Lodge County are public roads.

Modesty Creek Road was established as a county road by the County Commission in 1889. The land across which the road traverses has been owned by the federal government, Anaconda Company, various private interests and most recently Letica and McGee who purchased the land in 1989 and 1997 respectively. Prior to Letica and McGee purchasing the land locked gates were placed on various places in the road that blocked public access, even though the public continued to access the road on a permissive basis. Because of these gates Letica and McGee claim that they were unaware of any public right of access of Modesty Creek Road.

In 2012 county residents asked the County Commission to reaffirm the road as a county road and reopen it to the public. The County Commission voted in approval and Letica filed a complaint. The complaint was denied and McGee joined as a plaintiff to amend the complaint.

The trial court concluded that Modesty Creek Road’s lower branch was a statutorily created road, and that Modesty Creek Road’s upper branch was established as a public road via public prescriptive easement, and that the prescriptive easement had not been terminated by “reverse adverse possession.” The court also found the takings question was not ripe until after an appeal. Letica and McGee appealed, challenging both the declaration of a statutorily created road and the declaration of a public prescriptive easement.

Letica and McGee first claimed that the record does not sufficiently demonstrate that the road was created by petition. They claim that Modesty Creek Road is on some county road maps, but not on others. The court found that this does not qualify as “affirmative steps to indicate intention to abandon” county roads once they are established, further these maps do nothing to provide evidence of the process of how these roads were approved. Letica and McGee also claimed that the lower branch must terminate at the eastern portion of Section 23, Township 6 North, Range 11 West. There is no definitive description in the record of where the road ends, but evidence when taken as a whole, such as testimony and other historical records are consistent enough for the court to conclude that the Dry Gulch is located along Section 22, Township 6 North, Range 11 West and that the lower court correctly took the record as a whole. The lower court’s decision regarding the statutorily created lower branch of the road were affirmed.

Letica and McGee argued that the actions of landowners to block public access throughout the years created in the landowners ownership by adverse possession.  The court emphasized that in Montana a “private individual may not obtain title to a public statutorily created road by a adverse possession.” Since it was established that the lower branch is a statutorily created road and therefore could not be claimed by adverse possession.  This still left open the question of whether reverse adverse possession extinguished the public prescriptive easement on the upper branch.

Locked gates blocked public access to the upper branch from 1980 to 2012. The public who used to use the upper branch found alternate routes and County staff said they would have cut the locks if they were made aware of the issue as they did this in other instances. The record shows that the public “cooperated and adhered” to the permissive use policy. Those who leased land or had water rights along the road had keys to the gates.

After declaring the upper branch a county road in 2012 the County found that the landowners asserted hostile rights for thirty years. However, the court found that the public abandoned this road and the County was aware of the gates and did not remedy the situation.  Montana statute provides that a prescriptive easement may be terminated “by disuse of the servitude by the owner of the servitude for the period prescribed for acquiring title by enjoyment.” The Court reversed the lower court’s ruling that the public prescriptive easement was not terminated by reverse adverse possession.

One justice dissented. Chief Justice McGrath concurred with the resolution of the first issue, and dissents the conclusion of the second issue. He would uphold the lower court’s decision and conclude that “this case would not exist but for the unlawful closure of the lower branch road….[A] person may not illegally block a road created by action of a public government entity, and then use that blockage as evidence to support a claim of reverse adverse possession that extinguishes the public’s prescriptive right to any other property or interest in property.”

Landowner (and predecessors) implicitly dedicate road to township through actions over the course of a century

by Andrea Vaage

Niemi v. Fredlund Township
South Dakota Supreme Court, July 15, 2015

David and Roxie Niemi filed a declaratory judgment action against Fredlund Township, South Dakota seeking a determination that the road traversing their property (their property being known as Section 20) was not a public road. The Niemis claimed the road on their property, locally called “Lewton Road,” was being used by Fredlund Township as a public road. During the hearing in circuit court, several residents and township officials testified that the Township had paid for repairs and the installation of a cattle guard, had paid to “build up” the road from the driveway to Section 20 and a state highway, and that the road was the only access point to a dam and school. Up until an incident in 2011, when Roxie Niemi informed a nearby resident they could not use Lewton Road, no one had been informed the road was not for public use. The evidence indicated that the road had otherwise been used by the public since 1927. The circuit court determined the road was a public road by common law and statutory declaration. The Niemis argued that the circuit court erred.

The Court reviewed the circuit court’s decision for factual error. The standard of proof is the finding of “clear and convincing” evidence that the Niemis or their predecessors implicitly dedicated Lewton Road as a public road. Since no express dedication was made, the Court had to determine whether the dedication was implied through the owner’s conduct and the facts and circumstances associated with the case. The Court found that the previous owners of Section 20 either requested or acquiesced to Township maintenance of the road, and that one owner asked that a cattle guard be built. Roxie Niemi acquiesced to maintenance of the road in both 2007 and 2009. Although Roxie Niemi stated she didn’t want the road to be used for public use during testimony, her actions and conduct showed otherwise. Her testimony could not override her acts and conduct inconsistent with the stated intent.

The evidence also supported the conclusion that the Township accepted the dedication of the road.  It maintained the road since 1927, provided gravel, grading, and construction, and installed a cattle guard and a culvert.  Although the maintenance was not routine or consistent, the evidence established that the Township maintains some other Township roads only when requested by residents.  The fact that the Township declared Lawton Road a “No Maintenance Road” in 2005 further demonstrated that the Township accepted it as a public road.

The Court found that the district court did not err in determining Lewton Road was a public road under common law dedication. The decision was affirmed.

Platted village streets constitute “public highway” for purpose of defense to acquiescence claim

by Hannah Dankbar

Haynes v Village of Beulah
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 9, 2014

The Haynes argue that they are entitled to two strips of land within the platted rights-of-way of Lake Street and Commercial Avenue in the Village of Beulah citing the theory of acquiescence. The Haynes own Lots 10,11 and part of Lot 7 in Block 2. These lots are bordered by Lake Street on the northwest side and Commercial Avenue on the southwest side. Before 1968 the prior owners of the Haynes’ property installed railroad ties along Lake Street, separating the portion of the road used for travel from the grass and trees. On the southwest, a rock wall was installed in the 1950s to separate the part of Commercial Avenue used for travel from landscaping plants, a portion of the Haynes’ driveway, a maple tree and a strip of grass owned by the Haynes.

In 2012, the Village of Beulah introduced plans to create angled parking, a new sidewalk and a streetscape in the platted right-of-way of each street and would occupy land owned by the Haynes. The Haynes brought suit to prevent this action. The trial court granted the Village of Beulah’s motion for summary disposition based on MCL 247.190.

MCL 247.190 provides as follows:

 All public highways for which the right of way has at any time been dedicated, given or purchased, shall be and remain a highway of the width so dedicated, given or purchased, and no encroachments by fences, buildings or otherwise which may have been made since the purchase, dedication or gift nor any encroachments which were within the limits of such right of way at the time of such purchase, dedication or gift, and no encroachments which may hereafter be made, shall give the party or parties, firm or corporation so encroaching, any title or right to the land so encroached upon.

Plaintiffs argued that MCL 247.190 does not apply to platted village streets or property acquiescence claims.  The issue in this case is the definition of “public highways,” which is not defined in the statute. “Highway” has been defined through multiple cases and multiple legal dictionaries before the enactment of MCL 247.190. These definitions encompass a broad reading of the term “highway.” Because of this, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not err in broadly construing the term to include village streets.

The Haynes also argued that MCL 247.190 does not apply to property acquiescence claims, but the Court of Appeals disagreed. MCL 247.190 provides, “no encroachments” on a public highway “shall give the party or parties, firm or corporation so encroaching, any title or right to the land so encroached upon.” Nothing in the statute permits the court to distinguish between different legal theories used to assert a private right or claim to any portion of a public highway.  A claim for acquiescence constitutes an encroachment.

The Haynes also argued that the unimproved portions of platted right-of-ways are not “public highways” that are entitled to protection under MCL 247.190. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this assertion, as well.  It is sufficient for the spending of public funds on a road in a dedicated right-of-way to constitute public acceptance of the entire width, and therefore have the entire width constitute “public highway,” even if the municipality never improves the specific strips of land within the right-of-way.

Judgment for the Village of Beulah was affirmed.

Plat approval results in town acceptance of public road, but does not obligate town to construct it

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Runkle, et al. v. Town of Albany
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, June 19, 2014)

In the Town of Albany, Wisconsin several individuals purchased land and built homes along a street called Proverbs Pass. The developer of the subdivision entered into a development agreement with the town to build Proverbs Pass; however, neither the developer nor the town has completed construction or maintained the street. The people who built homes on the road filed a complaint asking the court to direct the town to complete the road and accept it as a town road, meaning the town would be responsible for it’s maintenance. The town admitted that the plat for the road had been approved and recorded with the register of deed but denied that it had any obligation to complete or maintain it as the town had not accepted the street as a town road. The circuit court ruled in favor of the town because certain conditions that were set forth in the development agreement were not met by the developer and the court concluded that that meant the town had not accepted the plat. The homeowners appealed the decision.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals found that the only issue was whether the town accepted Proverbs Pass as a town road when the town approved and recorded the plat. If the approval does not equal acceptance, then the Town would be correct in assuming no responsibility for the road. If the approval does equal acceptance, the the Town would be required to assume the same responsibility it does for all other town roads. The town argued that acceptance of Proverbs Pass as a town road hinged on the developer meeting conditions in the development agreement, and that those conditions were not met. Based on Wisconsin court precedent, a town accepts a plat when it is approved and recorded in the register of deed, therefore the Court of Appeals reversed the Circuit Court’s ruling and found that the the Town of Albany did in fact accept Proverbs Pass as a town road.  This, however, did not determine whether the town had an obligation to construct and maintain the street.  “The acceptance of a plat by the city does not require that it shall open all the streets and alleys for immediate use.”  This issue was handed back to the circuit court to determine whether any other events or agreements obligated the town to complete construction of Proverbs Pass.

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