Pub. Lands Access Ass’n v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs of Madison Cnty.

Pub. Lands Access Ass’n v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs of Madison Cnty., 321 P.3d 38 (Mont. 2014) (holding that: (i) a public road right-of-way includes the land reasonably necessary for maintenance, repair, and enjoyment; (ii) remand was necessary to determine the width of the public right-of-way established by prescriptive use; (iii) public use of the right-of-way to access the Ruby River for recreational purposes was permissible; and (iv) access to the river through the public road right-of-way did not constitute an unconstitutional taking of the landowner’s property).

In Madison County, Montana, (“County”), Seyler Lane, Lewis Lane, and the Duncan District Road cross the Ruby River by way of bridges. The County built and maintains the three bridges, and all three roads are public. The public acquired use of Lewis Lane and the Duncan District Road through deed and statutory petition, respectively. The public acquired a right-of-way to Seyler Lane and Seyler Bridge through prescriptive use. Defendant James C. Kennedy (“Kennedy”) owns land that abuts Seyler Lane and Seyler Bridge. In 2004, with the County’s permission, Kennedy built a private fence along the public right-of-way.

In 2004, the Public Lands Access Association, Inc. (“PLAA”) sued the County, asserting that the fences intruded on the public’s right-of-way and prevented the public from accessing the river. The trial court determined that the Seyler Lane public right-of-way, acquired by prescriptive use, included only the paved and traveled portion of the road, and did not include the land beyond Kennedy’s fences. The trial court granted the County a separate secondary prescriptive right for any use reasonable and necessary for maintenance and repair. PLAA appealed the decision.

On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court (“Court”) determined that all four issues raised by PLAA boiled down to one question: whether the public had a right to use the Seyler Lane right-of-way to access the Ruby River? To answer this inquiry, the Court had to determine (i) the ultimate width of the Seyler Lane right-of-way established by prescriptive use; and (ii) the purpose for which the right-of-way may be used.

In deciding to grant the County a secondary easement, the trial court relied on Montana case law stating that secondary easement rights may be granted to owners of canal or ditch easements for the purpose of reasonable maintenance. However, the Court noted that what was at issue in this case, as compared to a private easement, was a county road right-of-way established by prescriptive use, and that when a county road is established, the public acquires the right-of-way “and the incidents necessary to enjoying and maintaining it.” Montana case law further prescribes, that when a public road, as opposed to a private easement, is established by prescriptive use, the public right-of-way includes areas necessary to maintain it and allow for safe and convenient use. Accordingly, since land for maintenance and repair was already included in the public right-of-way, the Court held that the trial court erred by granting the County a secondary easement for that specific purpose. And that by doing so, it essentially split and narrowed the public right-of-way, which already existed beyond the portion of the road actually traveled.

Having found that the public could use the Seyler Lane right-of-way beyond the traveled path, the Court remanded the issue back to the lower court to determine the exact width of the public’s easement. However, the Court first had to determine whether the trial court could consider evidence of past recreational use when making that determination. PLAA argued that in the original proceeding, the trial court erred by excluding evidence of historical recreational use. The Court held that while recreational use alone is not sufficient to establish prescriptive use, it may be considered as part of “the nature of the enjoyment by which the public road right-of-way was acquired and, thus, may be considered in determining the width of the public road right-of-way.” However, the Court stated that recreational uses that extended beyond the width necessary for maintenance and repair would have to be established by clear and convincing evidence through the statutory period. The Court also noted that a party seeking to admit evidence of recreational use could only admit use that pre-dated Montana’s 1985 statute, which prohibits establishment of a prescriptive easement if acquired by entering private property to reach surface waters.

The Court then turned to the issue of scope, and held that public use of the Seyler Lane right-of-way may include purposes outside those established during the adverse period. The trial court had determined that the public could not travel from the road to the water because the areas were designated only for maintenance and repairs by the County, and, in the alternative, the PLAA had failed to submit evidence of recreational use occurring during the original prescriptive period. Having already determined that the public’s right-of-way included those areas needed for maintenance and repair, the Court held that the use of a public road right-of-way established by prescriptive use was not limited to “the adverse usage through which the road was acquired.” The Court held that, as compared to private prescriptive use, the scope of a public road right-of-way is broader and is not limited to the adverse uses by which the public acquired it. It also includes uses that are reasonably incident to the historical uses, and uses that are reasonably foreseeable. In other words, PLAA was not required to show particular recreational uses of the right-of-way in order for the public to use it for that purpose now; it needed only to show that recreational use was incidental or reasonably foreseeable. The Court concluded that use of the Seyler Lane right-of-way to access the Ruby River was a “reasonably foreseeable use of a public road right-of-way that crosses a river.”

Finally, the Court addressed Kennedy’s cross-appeal of the trial court’s finding that the public could use the Lewis Lane and Lewis Bridge right-of-way, acquired through an express grant contained in the original deed, to access the Ruby River. The public acquired use of the Lewis Lane roadway and bridge after the County purchased the right-of-way from Kennedy’s predecessor-in-interest in 1910. Although the grant of the right-of-way was contained in the deed, Kennedy argued that the trial court erred in allowing the public to use the sixty-foot wide right-of-way to access the river for two reasons: (i) his predecessor never intended the right-of-way to be used for recreational purposes, such as fishing and wading; and (ii) granting public access to the Ruby River amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property because Kennedy owned the riverbed beneath the right-of-way.

The Court rejected Kennedy’s first argument because the Lewis Lane deed expressly granted a public easement without limitation as to its uses. Without clear intent otherwise, the court presumes that a dedicator intended the public to use the right-of-way “in such a way that is most convenient and comfortable for usage known at the time of dedication and to those justified by lapse of time and change of conditions.” Accordingly, the Court held that public access to the river was a convenient and comfortable public use justified by the lapse in time and change in the public’s use over that time.

The Court also rejected Kennedy’s second argument. Kennedy claimed that as the owner of the riverbed underlying a non-navigable stream, he had the right to exclude the public from accessing that section of the river. The Court, however, noted that it “is settled law in Montana” that the owner of a riverbed does not have the right to exclude the public from utilizing the riverbed of non-navigable waters and banks up to the high water mark. Therefore, the Court held that since Kennedy never had the right to control access to the water he had “no compensable interest” in the property he claims was taken.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that allowing public access to the Ruby River did not constitute an unconstitutional taking. The Court, however, reversed the trial court on all other issues and remanded the case to the trial court to determine the definite singular width of the Seyler Lane public right-of-way.


The title image features the Upper Ruby River in Montana. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License and the owner does not endorse this blog.