Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirms quiet title dismissal and vacates public road decision

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland vacated a trial court determination that a public road was not established where St. Mary’s County contended that it closed the roadway and no longer maintained the parcel. In Wilkinson v. Board of County Commissioners, the Court noted the trial court had “blurred” methods establishing public roads and clarified the requirements of a dedication. Additionally, the Court affirmed the dismissal of an intervenor’s complaint to quiet title for failing to add parties the intervenor claimed were unknown.

At issue in the trial court was ownership of 0.196 acres of unimproved land bordering the Chesapeake Bay.  The disputed property was part of a larger conveyance from 1945, the remaining portion of which was paved and maintained by the County. The County had erected a sign at the end of the paved portion stating, “End of County Maintenance,” with the disputed parcel being located beyond the sign.

The Wilkinson Family Living Trust initiated its action against the County asserting ownership over the disputed property. The County counterclaimed asserted that it owned the property in fee simple. The Aiken Family Trust intervened asserting a claim to quiet title to declare it as the fee simple owner subject only to an easement in favor of the County. The trial court granted summary judgment and held that the disputed parcel was not a public road as a matter of law as the County “established, built, paved and maintained” a road over only a portion of the grant but that the disputed parcel laid beyond and was not maintained. The trial court further dismissed the Aiken Family Trust’s claims for failing to join unidentified “other” interested parties.

Public roads may be created by condemnation by a public authority or by dedication, which requires an offer to dedicate land to public use and acceptance by the authority. Here, the offer to convey the disputed parcel “for a public highway” and the “laying out of said highway and/or bridge” was unequivocal and evidenced by the 1945 deed which encompassed the disputed parcel. The Court noted that the 1945 deed conveyed “ALL OF THE LAND” and acceptance by the county was in total and could not be piecemeal. Merely because each portion of the offered parcel was not maintained, the County’s acceptance was nevertheless established and there was a complete dedication.

After determining that the public road had been established by dedication, the Court turned to the Aiken Family Trust’s claim to quiet title. The Aiken Family Trust alleged that the “Wilkinsons and others have asserted a right to use” the disputed property and later asserted that it was unaware of any person making a specific claim of title but that it has been “subjected to rumors and general accusations by members of the community.” The statute mandates, however, that the plaintiff bears the burden of naming all persons known to the plaintiff or reasonably apparent from an inspection of the property. By asserting the existence of unidentified “others,” the Aiken Family Trust was obligated to follow the statutorily mandated procedures to name the unknown persons. Failing to do so—a relatively easy matter for trial counsel to correct—resulted in the dismissal of their claim and affirmance on appeal.

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