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September 30, 2014

Jurors shouldn’t be deciding which roads to close

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Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 8:55 pm

People who depend on county roads to get where they’re going could end up taking the long way home if a bill in the legislature manages to get the governor’s signature. It would allow landowners to go to court to try to get county roads closed, and get the property turned over to people whose property abuts those roads.

Talladega County’s county commissioners come out against one of the bills, which was surprising since it was sponsored by one of the county’s state representatives.

After all, they’ll need his support on any future local bills they want passed, and the way local bills traditionally operate, any member of a county’s delegation can kill a local bill, and those are needed pretty regularly due to constitutional limits on the authority of county commissions.

Commissioners often feel that one of the very few things they have real authority to deal with is the system of roads in the county, and that authority is under attack.

The commissioners’ resolution specifically opposed House Bill 148, with was sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson of Sylacauga, arguing that it would allow a jury to overrule county commissioners on questions of vacating county roads. Actually there are two house bills dealing with that subject. Rep. Randy Wood, whose district will include a portion of northwest Talladega County in this year’s election, sponsored the other. Online versions propose two changes: one would allow any commissioner to propose vacating a road anywhere in the county; the other would allow a property owner to file suit in court to appeal the denial of a request to vacate a road.

The power of eminent domain ensures roads can be built where they are needed, but it’s understandable that property owners might prefer that a road not be located across their property, or next to their property. There are times when new roads better serve the public, and old roads are no longer used, and in some cases vacating a road—giving it to the property owner who could then close it to through traffic—is a reasonable thing to do. It also relieves the county of the expense of maintaining the road in the future.

The provision that would allow an appeal in court is alarming. Anyone who owns property abutting a road could request that the road be vacated; if denied, he or she could go to court to ask a jury to overturn the commission’s decision. Currently, appeals can be filed if a county commission decides to vacate a road, which would mean closing it, but not if they deny a request to vacate a road.

Commissioners would no longer have final authority over deciding when roads should be closed. Rather, a jury would make that decision.

While that system would serve the interests of landowners who can afford to hire lawyers, it probably wouldn’t be the best thing for the driving public, or for the public that would have to pay the commissions’ attorneys to battle those cases in court.

But the proposal to allow any commissioner to make the motion to vacate—not just the commissioner in whose district the road lies—may have merit.

When there are issues of alcohol licenses, roads and other matters affecting one district in a county, commissioners traditionally defer to the wishes of the commissioner representing that district. He or she is the one who knows the people and the needs of the district best, and he or she is also the one that will stand before the voters during the next election cycle. Generally speaking, it’s a good system.

But in the interest of fairness, there should be some recourse for a landowner to take his or her petition the commission as a whole, rather than rely on a single commissioner to have the final word. That’s part of the system that seems to be missing.

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