Clearwater Farms v. Giles

June 28, 2016

Utah Court of Appeals

June 16, 2016

2016 UT App 126 (Click for text of opinion)

In this case, the Utah Court of Appeals held that a district court has the authority to limit the width of a right-of-way established by use solely based on the road’s historic use and that the court does not need to consider the future use of the road in its width analysis.

Clearwater Farms and the Gileses own adjacent parcels of land in Utah County. After the Gileses purchased their property, they subdivided the land. As a condition for approval of the subdivision, the county asked the Gileses to make improvements on a segment of road that crossed the land and to dedicate that road to the county with a 56-foot right-of-way. However, a 300-foot section of the road on the Gileses property was left in its original condition. A dispute arose over the width of the right-of-way for this smaller section. Clearwater brought an action seeking to establish a 56-foot wide right-of-way. The district court rejected Clearwater’s claims and limited the right-of-way to a width of 30 feet. The court of appeals affirmed this decision.

The Utah Rights-of-way Act states that the ownership of a private road may transfer to the public when the road has been continuously used by the public for a period of ten years. Utah law specifies the scope of this right-of-way to be that which is “reasonable and necessary to ensure safe travel according to the facts and circumstances.” Utah Code § 72-5-104(9). The court first looked to the county ordinance to determine if it required a 56-foot wide right-of-way and found that the ordinance did not require a specific width. However, the court suggested that even if the ordinance had specified a width, it would be inappropriate to rely solely on the county ordinance in determining the width of a dedicated right-of-way.

The district court then considered the historic use of the road and held that a “reasonable and necessary” width should be determined by the current state of the road as well as the road’s history. Clearwater objected to the district court’s decision and argued that the court should also consider the potential future use of the road. However, the court of appeals concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in limiting the width of the road to its historic size. Because the road was for the benefit of the public, the court held that Clearwater’s private interests for future growth could not be a determining factor in the decision.