Who Owns a Road?

A Florida appellate court recently attempted to answer that question. In Mathers v. Wakulla County, Case No. 1D16-0582 (Fla. 1st DCA, May 2, 2017), the appellate court heard a dispute regarding whether a quarter-mile strip of a dead-end gravel road was a private or public road.

A dispute arose between two neighbors involving use of the gravel road. One neighbor put up a locked gate to block the other neighbor from using the shared road. In response, the other neighbor filed a lawsuit alleging that the road was a public right of way and that the gate was illegal. The county government which would have responsibility for this road if the trial court found it to be public disputed this claim.

The issue for the trial court to decide was whether the gravel road was previously “dedicated” to the county making it a public road. The court found that a road can be dedicated by two separate procedures:

  • Common-law dedication; and
  • Statutory-presumed dedication pursuant to §95.361, Fla. Stat.

For common-law dedication, one must show both:

  • An offer to dedicate property to the use of the public; and
  • Acceptance by the public.

In this dispute the focus was on the statute, because there was no evidence that there was ever a formal offer to dedicate the gravel road or acceptance by the county. The trial court found that there was also no dedication under §95.361, Fla. Stat., because of the lack of evidence that the county intended to accept responsibility for the road. The appellate court reversed this ruling.

The First District Court of Appeals held that the plain language of the statute compelled the conclusion that ownership automatically passes to the government entity at the moment the county  provides regular maintenance and repair for the prescribed period of time, regardless of any acceptance on the part of the government entity. Therefore, under Mathers, even if the road was not constructed by the government, it will be deemed a public road when:

  • The road has been regularly maintained or repaired;
  • By the government;
  • For at least seven (7) years immediately prior to the legal action brought to determine the status of the road.

The court ultimately sent Mathers back to the trial court to determine whether these requirements were met.