Farm Horizons, August 2013

Farming in road right-of-way raises safety concerns

By Ivan Raconteur

Planting crops within the right of way of a public road can be a safety hazard – and it’s against the law.

Highway right of way includes driving lanes, shoulders, ditches, the clear zone, and sight corners at intersections.

According to McLeod County Highway Engineer John Brunkhorst, utility poles and pedestals serve as good indicators of right of way limits because they are typically located at the outer edge of road right of way.

Visual obstructions created by unlawfully planted crops, such as corn, are especially problematic at road intersections.

As crops grow higher, they can create a serious safety hazard for motorists. The crops may interfere with drivers’ ability to see other vehicles as they approach intersections.

Crops planted within a road right of way might also obstruct drivers’ view of traffic signs, creating another traffic hazard.

There are safety concerns below ground, as well.

Utility companies are permitted to use highway right of way to install gas lines, power lines, telephone lines, and fiber optic cable. Plowing and tilling can damage these lines and create a potentially dangerous situation for workers and area residents, as well as causing possible service interruptions.

Safety issues are not the only problems created by crop encroachment. Erosion can become a problem, especially in ditches. It can affect proper drainage, clog culverts, and jeopardize the stability of the shoulders and the roadbed itself.

Brunkhorst said the county is working hard to maintain the ditches to ensure water is draining as it should.

Brunkhorst noted the McLeod County Highway Department plans to monitor the right of way and notify landowners of any violation. The notice may ask the responsible person to remove the planted crop and re-establish the affected area with permanent, non-crop vegetation at their own expense. If the request is not met, the complaint will be turned over to the sheriff’s office for a potential misdemeanor ticket. The highway department may make any corrections necessary and assess costs to the responsible person.

The county is especially sensitive about roads that have recently been expanded to a full 60-foot right of way. Brunkhorst said the county has invested a lot of money to acquire rights of way along these roads, and it intends to preserve these areas.

McLeod County landowners who are unsure of the right-of way-boundaries are encouraged to contact the county highway office at (320) 484- 4321 for assistance.

Farming within a road right of way is a concern for townships, as well as counties.

Hollywood Township, for example, placed stakes at the edge of the right of way as a guide to landowners, and asked for their voluntary cooperation keeping crops out of the right-of way.

The township notified residents that if crops are planted within the right of way, the township will remove them to the full width of the right of way.

Any Hollywood Township resident who has questions about this may contact Hollywood Township at (952) 955-3630.

Plowing, tilling, and planting within highway rights of way violates state law. Minnesota Statute section 160.2715 prohibits unauthorized work within a road right of way. The violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

Brunkhorst said most people have been cooperative and corrected the situation when violations have been brought to their attention, so it has not been necessary to turn any cases over to the sheriff’s office, so far.

How wide is a township road right of way?

Part of the problem with planting in road rights of way may be confusion over where the right of way ends.

The Association of Minnesota Townships receives a lot of questions from people who want to know how wide a township road right of way is.

The answer is “it depends.”

According to the association, there is no standard width to a town road. While statutes provide various methods for adopting, dedicating, and recording town roads, there is no uniform width to these roads.

The association provides the following examples to help explain the confusion. “Minnesota Statute 160.04 provides that all new and created roads must be at least 4-rods wide, while Statute 164.08 requires cartways to be not less than 2-rods side. And the ‘public use and maintenance’ rule under Statute 160.05 allows roads to be established at a width other than 2-rods or 4-rods; depending on the actual area used or maintained over a six-year period.

“The road recording statutes aren’t much help either. Statute 164.35 provides that roads recorded by the adoption of an official map must be 4-rod roads with a limited exception provided for 2-rod roads and an additional exception provided for roads previously established at a width other than 66-feet.”

The association further notes, “If the road is recorded, there is a chance the right-of-way was recorded at 4-rods. But then again. a recording doesn’t guarantee that the township had conducted a survey to establish the right of way or that the township had acquired the full 66 feet before the recording.

“If the road is not recorded and exists because it was used by the public and maintained by the township for six consecutive years then anything goes. The right of way is as wide as the road has been maintained. Often this is less than 66 feet, but in some cases it could be greater than 66 feet.

“This applies to the majority of the 59,000 miles of township roads in Minnesota. Keep in mind that maintenance includes mowing and brushing the ditches or road edges, and how far out snow is piled when it is plowed.”

To avoid any problems that may arise from working in a right of way, the best thing for landowners to do may be to contact their local township or county for clarification.

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