Maricopa County v. Rovey, No. 1 CA-CV 19-0659
Filed by the Arizona Court of Appeal 12-29-2020
If you own property adjacent to a public roadway, “strips and gores” and its associated concepts may be affecting your land ownership rights. The longstanding rule of “strips and gores” provides that when real property abutting a public way is conveyed by a description that only covers the lot itself, the grantee owns the property up to the center line of the public way (unless there is clear intent to the contrary). In the recent case, Maricopa County v. Rovey, the Arizona Court of Appeals discussed this rule when rendering a decision regarding ownership rights of county-maintained roads adjacent to private property.
The appellants, the Roveys, own real estate near Buckeye, Arizona, which abuts three paved roads maintained by Maricopa County (the “County”). In 2017, the County sought to condemn portions of the Roveys’ land to expand two of the three roads. The Roveys filed claims seeking to quiet title to those two roads in their favor and asserted that the County’s maintenance of all three roads constituted a trespass or inverse condemnation. Inverse condemnation is a claim where the landowner files suit because the government has taken private property without paying the required compensation (as opposed to a traditional condemnation action where the government files suit to take the property on the condition of paying just compensation).
The three primary issues the court decided were (1) ownership of the roads; (2) whether the County committed a trespass; and (3) whether the County was liable for inverse condemnation.
Quiet Title and Easement
First, the Roveys asked the court to quiet title to two of the subject roads in their favor. As mentioned above, the Court of Appeals applied the longstanding rule of “strips and gores” to determine ownership of the land beneath the roadway. Under the rule of strips and gores, the Roveys own the property up to the midpoint of the two roads at issue.
However, this rule needs to be applied along with the “except road” clause, or “easement corollary.” This “easement corollary” to the rule of strips and gores provides that the ownership of the property is subject to any reserved easements even when an easement was not expressly recognized before the dispute arose. In the Roveys’ case, the chain of title for the property included these express exceptions for road purposes. Therefore, even though the Roveys own the land the road is on, they took title subject to the County’s easements for the two roads.
Trespass and Inverse Condemnation
The Roveys also brought trespass and inverse condemnation claims against the County for its operation and maintenance of the three subject roads on their land. The court’s determination that the County had an easement for two of the roads defeated the Roveys’ trespass and inverse condemnation claims with respect to those two roads. However, the third road’s title and easement statuses were not at issue and not resolved. Because the court did not determine the County had an easement for this third road, the court proceeded to evaluate the validity of the Roveys’ trespass and inverse condemnation claims.
The court first held that the trespass claim was time barred. Under A.R.S. § 12-821, a claim against a public entity must be brought within one year after the cause of action accrues. The date a trespass action “accrues” depends on whether the trespass is continuous or permanent. A claim for a continuous trespass does not accrue until the conduct has ended, but a claim for permanent trespass accrues when the conduct begins. A trespass is permanent when the offending structure or business’s operation necessarily creates a permanent injury.
Here, the court held that the public road cannot be used or maintained without interfering with the Roveys’ property, so the presence of the road is a permanent trespass. Thus, the cause of action accrued at the time the road was first created—decades prior to the Roveys’ bringing their claim and well beyond the statute of limitations. Under A.R.S. § 12-821, the trespass claim was time barred.
For the inverse condemnation claim, the court noted inverse condemnation is personal claim—it generally does not run with the land or pass to a grantee unless it is expressly conveyed. Because the documents transferring title did not expressly transfer the inverse condemnation claim, the Roveys did not acquire the claim. Further, the Roveys took title to their land decades after the road was built. The road’s existence and use was clearly apparent, so the court held that the facts did not warrant an exception to the general rule. Ultimately, the County was not liable for trespass or inverse condemnation for their operation and maintenance of any of the three roads at issue.
It is extremely important to review the contents of any deed, especially if your property abuts a roadway. As made clear by this case, the ownership of the roads is not always abundantly clear. Additionally, any deeds intending to transfer claims of inverse condemnation must be explicit. It is equally important that if you believe a trespass or taking has occurred, you take measures to correct it immediately, particularly if a government entity is involved. You only have one year from the date of a permanent government trespass to file your lawsuit or the claim expires.
No one will care more about your property than you. It is important to be diligent in understanding your property rights and pursuing any claims you might have so you don’t lose them before you even know they exist.
Jefferson Hayden and Lane Conrad have extensive experience in the area of real estate litigation, including title and easement disputes, condemnation, disclosure disputes, adverse possession claims, and leasing or sale disputes. If you have any questions about this article or real estate litigation generally, please contact Jefferson Hayden at (602) 256-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lane Conrad at (602) 256-4432 or email@example.com.