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Oyen v. Lawrence County Commission

Supreme Court of South Dakota

December 6, 2017

RAYMOND C. OYEN, Petitioner and Appellee,
v.
LAWRENCE COUNTY COMMISSION, Respondent and Appellant.

          ARGUED AUGUST 29, 2017

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LAWRENCE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA, THE HONORABLE MICHELLE K. COMER Judge.

          LONNIE R. BRAUN of Thomas, Braun, Bernard & Burke, LLP Rapid City, South Dakota RICHARD P. TIESZEN of Tieszen Law Office Pierre, South Dakota Attorneys for petitioner and appellee.

          BRUCE L. OUTKA Lawrence County Deputy State's Attorney Deadwood, South Dakota JOHN R. FREDERICKSON Deadwood, South Dakota Attorneys for respondent and appellant.

          SEVERSON, JUSTICE.

         [¶1.] Various landowners petitioned the Lawrence County Commission requesting that the County maintain a road providing access to their homes. The County denied the Landowners request. Petitioner Raymond Oyen appealed the County's action to the circuit court. The County filed a motion to join the United States of America as an indispensable party. The court denied the motion, finding the County responsible for the road and directing the County to provide maintenance. The County appeals. We reverse, and remand for the circuit court to join, if feasible, the United States of America as an indispensable party. If joinder is not possible the circuit court must determine whether to proceed or dismiss the case.

         Background

         [¶2.] In 1930, Miner's and Merchant's Savings Bank granted Lawrence County an easement for the "free and uninterrupted use, liberty and privilege of a right of way of the customary width, for highway purposes . . . to carry with it all of the attendant burdens and easements of a public highway." That right of way covers South Rapid Creek Road (SRCR), which is at issue in this case. Since the 1970s, the County approved three platted subdivisions indicating that SRCR is a county road or a county/forest service road. In 1992, the County granted the United States of America:

exclusive easements for the existing road for use for all lawful purposes by the United States . . . and the general public when authorized by the Grantee, over and across the parcels of land . . . described as follows: South Rapid Road No. 231.6 . . . South Rapid Branch Road No. 231.6A . . . the said easements hereby granted are for the reconstruction, maintenance, and full, free and quiet use and enjoyment of the existing roads as they are presently located and in place over and across the above described premises.

         The minutes of the 1992 Commission reflect that the motion to transfer was made in order to "follow the recommendation of the Highway Superintendent and authorize the Chairman to sign a transfer of existing easements."

         [¶3.] On August 15, 2015, Lawrence County landowners owning real property along SRCR, petitioned the Lawrence County Commission to provide snow removal and maintenance of SRCR. The Commission reviewed the matter at its meeting on October 13, 2015, and denied the request for service to the road. Thereafter, Oyen appealed the determination to the circuit court. The United States of America was not a party to the proceedings, and on June 7, 2016, the County filed a motion to dismiss Oyen's petition, or in the alternative, join the United States as an indispensable party. The circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion on June 20, 2016, and denied the motion on July 22, 2016. In its findings of fact and conclusions of law on the motion, the circuit court stated: "Because Lawrence County failed to transfer its duty to maintain SRCR to the Forest Service, the Forest Service is not an indispensable Party to this action."

         [¶4.] The circuit court issued further findings of fact and conclusions of law on November 21, 2016. The court found that SRCR has been open to and used by the public as a public roadway since the 1930s. It also found that agreements between the County and the Forest Service indicate that both the County and Forest Service admit that SRCR is on the County and Forest Service road systems. An agreement dated May 12, 1983, stated that the "county is vitally interested in providing and operating a road system to provide adequate vehicular access for residents and commercial enterprises for both intra and inter-county travel[.]" The circuit court found Lawrence County's witness testimony that SRCR was a Forest Service road inconsistent with documentary evidence (Commission minutes and recorded easements) reflecting that the County had joint ownership and responsibility for SRCR. It found such testimony to also be inconsistent with the "attempt to transfer the road easements to the United States Forest Service[.]" Finally, it found that the "County's decision to deny the petition was based on false information and lack of relevant and competent evidence and the County's refusal to review documentary evidence of ownership by the County was therefore arbitrary and capricious."

         [¶5.] The circuit court ultimately determined that Lawrence County is responsible for maintaining the road pursuant to SDCL 31-12-26. The court concluded that the County, through its actions of accepting the right-of-way easements and approving the plats, "agreed to hold the property in trust for the benefit of the Petitioners and other members of the Public . . . which responsibility cannot simply be transferred to the United States Forest Service without ensuring such obligations and responsibilities are protected and assured pursuant to SDCL 11-3-12[.]" The court noted that pursuant to SDCL 31-1-3, "[a]ll public highways . . . lawfully established shall continue as established until changed or vacated in some manner provided by law." The court concluded that the Commission did not follow the specific procedure set forth in SDCL 31-3-6 through SDCL 31-3-9 for vacating or changing a county secondary road.

         Standard ...


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