Supreme Court of Maryland has clarified how public roads are established

In Board of County Commissioners v. Aiken, the Supreme Court of Maryland has clarified how public roads are established, recognizing that its prior case law “has caused confusion.” The Court agreed with the Appellate Court of Maryland’s “well-reasoned analysis and affirm[ed] its judgment in all respects.” The Appellate Court’s decision was discussed here in August, 2022. 

At issue in the trial court was ownership of unimproved land bordering the Chesapeake Bay. The disputed property was part of a 1945 conveyance from the Wilkinson Family Living Trust’s predecessor to the State and, subsequently, from the State to the County, to construct a public road. The road was partially constructed but never completed and the County erected a sign at the end of the paved portion stating, “End of County Maintenance,” with the disputed parcel being located beyond the sign. In 2017, the County adopted an ordinance that closed the uncompleted portion of the road.

The trial court held that the uncompleted portion of the road 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 Appellate Court reversed as the trial court had “blurred” methods establishing public roads and clarified the requirements of a dedication to create a public road.

In supplementing the Appellate Court’s analysis, the Supreme Court began its discussion using familiar principles of deed interpretation. The deed to the State provided that the conveyance was for the purpose of creating a public road, with the deed recitals indicating that the conveyance was in order to construct or improve a highway “as a part of the Maryland State Roads System.” The Wilkinson Family Living Trust contended that such language reflected a limited grant and that the State’s failure to construct a road caused the unimproved parcel to revert back. The Supreme Court noted that the deed did not contain any reversionary language. Absent such reversionary language, the grant to the State—later, to the County—was in fee simple absolute.

Turning to the dedication, the Supreme Court held that a public dedication required an offer and acceptance. Here, the offer was plain and the deed to the State was a clear manifestation of the intent to make an offer. The four forms of acceptance were then enumerated as: “(1) by deed or other record; (2) by acts in pais, such as opening, grading or keeping the road in repair at the public expense; (3) by the general public’s long continued use of the land; and (4) by express statutory provision or other similar official action.” The State accepted the offer set forth in the deed by both accepting the conveyance and recording the instrument. The 2017 closure ordinance further evidenced that there had been a prior acceptance as, indeed, the public road could not be closed by ordinance if it had not been initially accepted.

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