Public roads often are moved, and sometimes are vacated, as development evolves. Sometimes, the ownrs of the land on either side have disputes over the ownership of the remaining roadbed.
Usually, the law is fairly simple. The ownership of the roadbed is divided along the centerline. There are a few exceptions: when the deed creating the lots specifically placed the dividing line somewhere else; when the grantor can be shown to have intended something else; or where the road was created along a preexisting boundary from only one owner’s land. A recent case from Oregon examines, and rejects, a few arguments that a grantor intended to move the boundary from the center to one side.
In 1950, the owners of 36 acres near Lake Oswego subdivided part of the land, and included a road along the boundary of the subdivision, created only from land in the subdivision. Subsequently, they sold lots on both sides of the road. Many years later, the county vacated the road, and the owners of land outside the subdivision claimed the boundary was at the centerline.
Of the various deeds using the road as a boundary, none identified the road as being entirely in one parcel or another. Instead, some referred to the subdivision plat, and some used a metes and bounds description of the land. One deed referred to the acreage of the lot conveyed and identified the land by the county’s tax lot number. The court decided that none of these descriptions were enough to move the boundary away from the centerline. It specifically rejected an argument that the acreage description showed an intend to set the boundary along the edge of the road.
The owners of the land within the subdivision also argued that the use of a road bounding the subdivision as a lot boundary was similar to a road being created along a preexisting boundary. The court disagreed. The preexisting boundary rule was developed because it was unfair to move a boundary as a result of the actions of one landowner when the owner on the other side did nothing. When a single landowner subdivides his or her own property and then sells part of the property, there is no unfairness to anyone else. All that happens is that the owner creates several lots.
Finally, the court addressed the effect of a 1953 deed that reserved to the original owners a small piece of land along the roadway for a turnaround. This, the court decided, did not show any intent to move the boundary, only to make a small change to the shape of the road.
Washington follows similar rules to Oregon, and a similar case has happened there.
If you want to buy land along a newly developed roadway, you should expect the boundary to run to the centerline. If you want something different, you need to talk to the sellers and ask for a clear statement in the deed. If you think someone may have intended a different result before, you may want to consult a lawyer, but you’ll need to gather all of the evidence you can, and in most cases, you’ll need something extremely unequivocal to convince either the lawyer or a judge.