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Court of Appeals Finds Valid Highway by User Claim

In a significant decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, a Mecosta County couple established a successful “highway by user” claim that turned what was previously the private property of the defendant outside Big Rapids into a public roadway.

In Farlow v. Grunst, the plaintiffs sought a court ruling that what was previously the private property of the defendant near Young’s Lake outside of Big Rapids had become a public highway due to public use over time. In other words, the public’s repeated use of the defendant’s private property over a number of years had turned the property into a public roadway.

The highway by user statute, MCL 221.20, holds in pertinent part that, “all roads which have been or which may hereafter be laid out and not recorded, and which shall have been used 8 years or more, shall be deemed public highways, subject to be altered or discontinued according to the provisions of this act.” The “highway by user statute is based on a landowner’s implied dedication of private property to the public for use as a public highway.”

While the defendant argued that the statute did not allow for private property to be converted to a public highway, the Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the statute “specifically addresses the issue of converting private property into a public highway when its elements are satisfied.” To satisfy the statute, the plaintiff had to show that: (1) there was a defined line, (2) the road was used and worked on by public authorities, (3) the property was used for public travel for an uninterrupted, consecutive 10-year period, and (4) there was open, notorious, and exclusive public use of the roadway during that time.

In this case, the first element was satisfied because there was a defined line of travel. Second, the plaintiffs provided affidavits that the Mecosta County Road Commission had provided public maintenance to the purported roadway. Third, the defendants conceded that the property was used for public travel, and met the standard that the public travel consisted of more than just friends and family of people living along with roadway.

Finally, as to the fourth element, the public use of the roadway was open in this it was visible to the public, and notorious in that it was generally known and spoken about. With regard to whether the use of the roadway was “exclusive” – meaning it excluded the defendant’s private use of the property – the Court of Appeals held that while the defendant might have granted permission to some of the road’s users, “the affidavits plaintiffs submitted identified specific uses of the disputed roadway that were contrary to the interests of defendants and that the affidavit of James Grunst did not contradict these affidavits.” Thus, the public’s use was exclusive.

The Court of Appeals additionally rejected the defendant’s argument that the Mecosta County Road Commission abandoned the roadway. “MCRC maintained the disputed roadway for several decades, and regular maintenance is inconsistent with an intent to abandon or relinquish a road.”

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience in state and federal courts contesting the improper decisions of local Zoning Boards of Appeal, as well as other local government agencies. Our firm has also handled highway by user claims and related property disputes. If you believe you have been improperly deprived of a lawful use of your property, please contact us.

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