In order to facilitate the settlement of the western United States in the nineteenth century, the federal government broke the land up into “townships” that were generally 36-square mile blocks. Each township was then broken into “sections” of roughly one square mile, or 640 acres. Each section was further divided into “quarter sections,” and further into “quarter quarter sections” of 40 acres each.
Sometimes when we are working on acquisitions or financings of raw land, we encounter roads that follow the section lines, usually 30 feet on either side of the line. There is often no deed, easement or dedication for these roads, and the question comes up as to whether there is some statutory basis for these roads. If there is no statutory basis, then we need inquire about whether there is a prescriptive easement for these roads. (See the note below on prescriptive easements.)
So, is there statutory authority for those roads? There isn’t now, but there used to be.
In 1885, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law [PDF] that allowed commissioners of a county, by an order at a regular meeting, to declare any section or township line “on the public domain” to be a public highway. As pointed out by H. Keith Corey of Grand Junction (see part (3) of his paper), this statute was repealed in 1953, but its repeal did not remove any roads that were in place prior to repeal. Before repeal, El Paso, Weld and Mesa Counties passed resolutions pursuant to this statute. See Book 571, Page 55[PDF] of the El Paso County real property records and Book 86, Page 273 [PDF] of the Weld County real property records.
If you are looking at land that has one of these roads located on a section line, and the county passed a resolution pursuant to the 1885 statute before 1953, then you should assume that there is a public highway for the first 30 feet inside the section line.
Thanks to Ian Cortez of Ulteig Engineers, who brought this up at a surveying seminar, and to David Knapp at Land Title for sharing his experience on this issue.
NOTE: Generally, a prescriptive easement arises when a party adversely uses property in the same manner as if it had an easement, and such use is continuous and uninterrupted for the period of prescription. Almost every element of a presciptive easement is loaded with specific, and sometimes controversial, meaning, so the analysis needs to handled carefully. Note that a prescriptive easement (and its cousin, adverse possession) usually cannot be established by private parties against governmental entities, so you probably can’t make one of these public highways go away without the county’s consent.
Photo by goingslo (flickr)