Appeals court intercedes in Wakulla County land dispute

By Richard Jones | May 18, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — An appeals panel for the 1st District Court of Appeal has reversed a summary judgment and remanded a dispute between neighbors and Wakulla County back to a lower court. 

The case involves a pair of neighbors and Wakulla County that were engaged in a dispute over the use of an access road abutting both parties' properties.

In the ruling, the panel stated that Circuit Court for Wakulla County erred when it issued a summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Wakulla County. The appeals panel said that the lower court acknowledged there was a genuine issue of fact at dispute at that issue deserved to be litigated.

The original case was filed by John and Brenda Mathers of Crawfordville. The Matherses and their next-door neighbors, Wayne and Brenda Mitchell, had a series of long disagreements regarding a gate the Mitchells installed that ended with police intervention, according to court records.

The Matherses argued that the gate blocked access to their property, and they had a right to use the road behind the gate despite a “no trespassing” sign the Mitchells hung up.

The Wakulla County Sheriff's Office eventually advised the Mitchells to leave the gate open until the courts could decide the matter, court documents state.

Officials from the county eventually learned of the dispute, and after a record search, forwarded a letter to both parties informing them that the road was on private property.

The Matherses then filed a complaint against the Mitchells and Wakulla County. The Matherses alleged that the road had become a county road under section 95.361 of the Florida Revised Code. The Matherses also demanded the county resume maintenance and repair of the road.

The Matherses and Mitchells settled their claims, leaving the county as the only remaining defendant. The county held out, responding that it had no legal duty to provide such maintenance or repair to the road because it has no record of acceptance of the property.

The lower court issued a summary judgment in favor of the county, ruling that a private party cannot invoke section 95.351. The court also said that because the county did not formally accept ownership of the road, section 95.361 does not apply.

The court ruled that the lower court misapplied the plain language of the state statute, specifically that formal acceptance is not necessary. The court said ownership of the road automatically passed to the county at the moment it provided regular repair and maintenance for the set period of time. The court also concluded that section 95.361 can be invoked by private parties.  

The court remanded the case back to circuit court for further proceedings.

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