Maintaining a Private Road
December 16, 2016 4:02 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago I bought a house that is in a small area where there are a few houses that all share a gravel road. The road comes off the main road across my property before it reaches the other houses that use the road. I have some questions about how maintaining the road should work.

Originally, the property was about 7 acres, with one large house at the back of the property and a gravel road that ran through the center of the rectangular plot. The main road is at a different elevation than the property, so near the main road, the gravel road turns parallel to the main road and then turns again to meet the main road at the front left corner of the property.

Not too long after house was built, it was sold and the 7 acres were split into three portions, a 2 acre plot at the back where the main house is, and two 2.5 acre plots on either side of the road. Both of these plots were bought by the same family, with one house used for parents and the other their adult children. The parents maintained the road. Not too long after that the children moved away, and another family bought the house. They did not do much upkeep on the property, and the parents from before still continued to maintain the road. I bought the house from that family.

Shortly after I bought the house, the parents split their 2.5 acre property in half and sold it to someone who built a house on the other half. Right after that, the owners of the large house moved out, split their property in half, and sold the empty part to the parents who built a house for their children to return to.

So the gravel road was fine with the traffic for three houses, but with five houses and the damage from the large trucks used to build the two additional houses, the gravel road is not in great shape. To counteract the damage, the parents bought a tractor and began grating the road. I don't really know about maintaining gravel roads, but their frequent grating doesn't seem to be good for the road.

I had a discussion with them today, and it turns out they have resented the fact that I have not been paying them for the gas to grate the road. I said that I had told them in the past that I would be happy to pay to maintain the road, I would just like to discuss how the road is to be maintained. I wasn't sure that what they were doing just now was the best thing, and I wished that they would have talked to me about it. They said I was antisocial and difficult to talk to (I guess I don't wave enough), and that is why they hadn't discussed it with me. They said I didn't have to worry, they would not be maintaining the road any more.

So now I guess we will need to work out some kind of maintenance or upgrade plan, hopefully with everyone who uses the road, which would be much better than leaving it to just the parents. I just don't know how to work it out. The largest part of the road is on my property, so will I have to pay a larger portion? I feel that maybe I should talk to a lawyer. What kind of lawyer deals with these issues? Who do I talk to to evaluate the road?

The parents have lived on their property for the longest amount of time, and it is pretty clear they feel like they have an ownership on what should be done to the road. I just want to make sure that we do what's best.

This is in Oklahoma, if that is important.
posted by Quonab to Law & Government (17 answers total)
Call up the county and find out what the county thinks the state of the road is. I know that when I lived on a private road that was deteriorating, we were happy to discover that though the subdivision developers hadn't built the roads to standards such that we could pass it off to a government agency, they had set it up so that we were entitled to some portion of gasoline taxes, which helped offset re-paving by a lot. And the nice lady at the county (Marin, California) gave us a great run-down of what our options and responsibilities were.
posted by straw at 4:05 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is there any mention of an easement, the road, or its maintenance in your deed? We have a similar set up with 4 houses and it's written into the deed. The road easement cuts through our property, but the other houses it services are the ones responsible for maintaining it.
posted by cecic at 4:09 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Private roads shared between multiple properties usually have easements and a plan for shared maintenance costs attached to the property title. It sounds like you don't have that, but maybe it is time to talk to a lawyer and have that formal framework set up in a way that all the neighbors agree to.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:10 PM on December 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

There is an easement in my deed (50' where it crosses my property, 25' where it meets the adjoining property). There is no maintenance agreement. When the large house was sold, the bank financing the sale wanted me to sign an agreement saying that I would not sue anyone to get them to maintain the road. I noped the hell out of that.
posted by Quonab at 4:20 PM on December 16, 2016

First: start waving at people. It's going to be a lot easier to work this stuff out if everyone's on friendly terms. I would very much avoid lawyers if at all possible.

Second: it's called grading and you can read up on it. It may be that the work the parents were doing wasn't really the best thing for the road but it may also be that it was fine. Can you explain why you think the grading wasn't the right thing for the road?

Depending on how big your town is there may be someone in the town's road crew who could give you an idea of what needs to be done, or what hasn't been done, otherwise you'd get some sort of a civil engineer.

If it were me (and I live in a rural area where this sort of thing is pretty normal-sounding) I'd probably talk to a civil engineer (to make sure things are mostly AOK) and then talk to the parents and try to smooth things over. If they're willing to do the work (if you chip in for gas) and are doing a decent job (as determined by a third party) I would probably stay out of it and let them grade the thing. Bring over a bottle of whiskey or something (or do some other nice rural person thing for them) and say you want to make this right. How long is this road all told? Do you get along with the neighbors otherwise?
posted by jessamyn at 4:35 PM on December 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

The main thing is that they are using the grading to spread out the road and make it wider. So now there is the area where the road originally was, then a 2 foot area which is a mix of grass and gravel, that I have to mow but it damages my mower. They have only done this spreading on my side of the road. It looks terrible.

They grade every time it rains.
posted by Quonab at 4:58 PM on December 16, 2016

Commonly people set up a transferable road service agreement in this situation. You can research that and see how they work if you pursue the formal option. Everyone would have to buy in and add it to their feed though so tough sell.

I doubt the county is going to help as they don't have an easement but you could potentially cede them the right of way I guess.
posted by fshgrl at 5:06 PM on December 16, 2016

I probably should have mentioned that I live within the city limits of a large city, so I might talk to the city instead of the county. Or both, I don't know
posted by Quonab at 5:14 PM on December 16, 2016

For the future, I wonder if it's worth creating an HOA, getting the road fixed, then everybody starts over with a clean slate.
posted by rhizome at 5:23 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you use this road? If so I'd try to arrange an even split of the costs of maintenance and then contract it out sharing the costs equally. If not I'd put up a fence at the edge of the easement and ignore it (assuming the easement runs along one edge of your property).
posted by Mitheral at 5:25 PM on December 16, 2016

You can also make the argument that the people building houses were responsible for repairing the road. I would definitely do that. As you've noted grading gradually flattens and widens roads by its very nature and sometimes more repair is needed
posted by fshgrl at 6:07 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can also make the argument that the people building houses were responsible for repairing the road.

I deleted exactly this from my comment because it got unwieldy for some reason, but my understanding is that this is indeed typically the case, though location probably matters a lot. Might be a little late for it in this case, though.
posted by rhizome at 7:43 PM on December 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

My house is the first on a private road, with similar characteristics (gravel, only a handful of houses, no HOA or other legal framework. What we've done is plant shrubs on one side to clearly mark where the easement ends, and then pay to maintain the portion between the main road and the end of our property ourselves.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:03 AM on December 17, 2016

The main thing is that they are using the grading to spread out the road and make it wider. So now there is the area where the road originally was, then a 2 foot area which is a mix of grass and gravel, that I have to mow but it damages my mower. They have only done this spreading on my side of the road. It looks terrible.

Put a solid fence along your edge of the property to stop this from happening. Something rustic like split rails.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:21 AM on December 17, 2016

We're on a gravel road, and it hasn't been graded the entire time (8 years) we've lived here. That said, the original owner had a road grader and made a really good road. An we do everything we can to enforce a 5 mph speed limit.
What kills roads is migration of the gravel to the sides (what you are hitting with our lawnmower) and potholes with standing water, both made worse with speed. Grading should fill in the potholes, move gravel back onto the road, and give the road a gentle hump in the middle so that water drains off. The tractor should have the blade set at an angle so that the gravel is moved to the center, start on the edges and work in. Then the blade can be set straight for the final smoothing if there are ridges.
I worked on a ranch with miles of gravel roads, they dragged a huge I-beam behind a tractor, set an an angle toward the center, you can also use an section of old railroad track. This has the advantage of always providing the same downforce so you don't need to fiddle with the hydraulics on the tractor to set the blade depth.
posted by 445supermag at 7:18 AM on December 17, 2016

Migration of surface gravel, while an extreme nuisance for you, can also be a hazard for any large vehicles. It might look like a road, but gravel with no footing underneath can give way, stranding a vehicle, or worse causing an overturn.

Frequent grading can damage culverts, and water seepage can dig out large under-surface potholes that will happily swallow a vehicle tyre after rain. Check with the city's drainage supervisor if there are any drainage obligations around your road, as flood damage from drainage from your property onto another's is often assessed in ways that seem very unfair when you're hit with the bill. Owners of subdivided properties may not be aware of this, and drainage courts can be nasty affairs.
posted by scruss at 7:44 AM on December 17, 2016

I am at the end of such a road (here in Australia), and I was the one who did the subdivision. Because it is not a 'public road', the public authorities are not responsible for its upkeep. It is a private road and the residents are responsible for it, and the development approval for the subdivision makes this explicit. If it goes over your property, you should have been consulted as part of the approval process for the subdivisions (under the arrangements applying here).

Ideally, you will split the cost of maintaining a private road something like: everybody shares the cost of the bit that everybody uses (to the first fork in the road); everybody except the person served by the first fork share the cost of the bit to the next fork (the person served by the fork pays 100% of the cost of that length as they are the only users); and so on so that the person at the end pays 100% of the length past the last fork, and decreasing percentages of the costs back towards the start of the road. This assumes you have a contractor who can give you costs, even informally. Alternatively, if the work is fairly homogenous, do it on a length basis.

Good luck, even with goodwill from all, these things are very difficult to actually make happen. If the worst comes to the worst, you might choose to abandon that road and make a new one for yourself exclusively, and let the neighbours handle the existing road on their own (if such a scenario is feasible in practical terms).
posted by GeeEmm at 12:49 PM on December 17, 2016

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