Morris v. Sumter Cnty.

Decision Date31 August 2022
Docket NumberA22A0826
PartiesMORRIS et al. v. SUMTER COUNTY et al.
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)

MORRIS et al.

No. A22A0826

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

August 31, 2022


Reese, Judge

Beginning in 2010, Appellee Sumter County ("the County") maintained and repaired several roads along Lake Blackshear. However, in 2019, the County ceased its maintenance of the roads. Thereafter, numerous residents who lived on or owned property on these roads ("the residents") filed a petition for writ of mandamus and declaratory judgment against the County, its Board of Commissioners, and the Board members to have the roads declared "public" and compel the County to continue its maintenance and repair. The trial court denied the residents' petition. For the reasons set forth infra, we vacate the judgment of the trial court and remand the case with direction.

"A trial court's findings of fact after a declaratory judgment hearing are analogous to a jury verdict and will not be interfered with if there is any evidence to


support them."[1] So viewed, the record shows that the roads at issue, Statham Lakefront Road, East Entrekin Road, West Entrekin Road, and Selma Lane, are all located in the Statham Lakefront Properties subdivision, although a portion of Statham Lakefront Road extends beyond the entrance of the subdivision to Lamar Road. Statham Lakefront Road is the only road into and out of the subdivision, and the roads are used to access other roads in the subdivision. Statham Lakefront Road, East Entrekin Road, West Entrekin Road, and Selma Lane have been open to the public since at least 2003, and access to the roads has never been restricted.

In 1981, plats were recorded showing the subdivision and all of the roads from Lamar Road to Lake Blackshear.[2] Until recently, the roads were listed as county roads by the regional Geographic Information System, which maintains maps based on input from government agencies.[3]


In 1983, the Sumter County Board of Commissioners adopted standard specifications for County roads.[4] According to the minutes from a 1996 Board of Commissioners meeting, the county attorney reported that the developer had approached him concerning the roads in the subdivision. The roads did not meet the County's specifications, and the Board discussed the possibility of requesting a bond for road maintenance but ultimately took no action.

In 2007, a resident addressed the Board of Commissioners on behalf of the Statham Lakefront Properties Homeowners Association and asked the County to assist with maintenance of the roads in the subdivision, which the residents were willing to deed to the County. Once again, the Board took no action.

According to a former County Commissioner, until 2008, all of the roads in the subdivision were considered private, but that year the Board of Commissioners accepted Statham Lakefront Road as a "trial road" in order to begin improvement projects on it. On April 19, 2010, Lake Blackshear Holdings, LLC, deeded Statham Lakefront Road to the Statham Lakefront Properties Homeowners Association. The same day, the homeowners association entered into a road maintenance easement with


the County regarding Statham Lakefront Road, which was recorded in superior court.[5] The easement provides in part:

The purpose of this easement is [to] allow Sumter County, by and through its Board of Commissioners and its designees, to access the roadway contained in said easement for the sole purpose of road, shoulder and ditch maintenance for public safety purposes, including, but not limited to school bus ingress and egress and emergency vehicles. This easement in no way requires or mandates that Sumter County conduct any maintenance on said roadway, its shoulders and ditches whatsoever, and any such repairs and maintenance shall be done at the sole discretion of Sumter County, and only when such is deemed to be in the best interest of the citizens of Sumter County. Further, Sumter County may cancel and surrender this easement to the lawful owners at any time without notice, if in the discretion of Sumter County, this easement for road maintenance is deemed to not be in the best interest of the citizens of Sumter County, Georgia.

Around this time, the County put up green road signs, which identified the roads as county roads, as well as traffic control signs, and began cutting the grass


along the roads. Local residents also put up traffic signs and patched potholes, although it is not clear from the record when this work occurred.

It is undisputed that between 2010 and 2019, the County maintained not just Statham Lakefront Road, but all of the roads at issue. Specifically, as part of the County's 2015 paving project, the County resurfaced the portion of Statham Lakefront Road from Lamar Road to the beginning of the subdivision. A Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) and a Local Maintenance Improvement Grant (LMIG) funded the 2015 paving project.

As part of the County's 2017 paving project, the County resurfaced the portion of Statham Lakefront Road within the subdivision, as well as East Entrekin Road and Selma Lane, and performed additional maintenance on Statham Lakefront Road. A TSPLOST, Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), and LMIG funded the 2017 paving project, but only TSPLOST/SPLOST funds were used to maintain the roads in question.

In 2019, the County stopped maintaining the roads within the subdivision. At the June 2021 hearing before the trial court, the Director of Public Works for the County testified that the roads required repair, and, without repair and maintenance, the roads were unable to carry ordinary loads. He estimated that it would cost


between $1.2 million and $1.6 million to bring the roads into compliance with the County's specifications.[6]

In November 2020, approximately 30 residents and property owners filed a petition for writ of mandamus and declaratory judgment against the County, its Board of Commissioners, and the Board members, seeking to have Statham Lakefront Road, East Entrekin Road, West Entrekin Road, and Selma Lane declared "public roads" and to compel the County to make repairs and maintain the roads. Following briefing and an evidentiary hearing, the trial court ruled that the Board did not expressly accept any offer to dedicate the roads and that the County's maintenance of the roads and use of tax funds to maintain the roads did not constitute an implied acceptance of any offer to dedicate the roads. This appeal followed.[7]

The grant or denial of mandamus relief to maintain public roads "lies largely in the discretion" of the trial court.[8] This Court will not interfere with a trial court's


decision on mandamus "absent a showing that the court manifestly abused its discretion."[9] However, we review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo.[10] With these guiding principles in mind, we now turn to the residents' claims of error.

1. The residents claim that the trial court erred in disregarding common-law provisions allowing a court to find the implied acceptance of the dedication of roads based on public use and County maintenance, and, in doing so, erred in finding that the roads were not public roads. We agree that the trial court disregarded certain common-law provisions.

"Dedication is the setting aside of land by the owner for a public use."[11] To establish a dedication of land to public use, "there must be an offer, either express or implied, by the owner of the land, and an acceptance, either express or implied, by the appropriate public authorities or by the general public."[12] Land is dedicated for public


use when it is donated by the owner and accepted by the public "for public road purposes, in accordance with statutory or common-law provisions."[13]

The burden is on the party who relies on a dedication of land to public use to prove it.[14] Thus, the burden was on the residents to prove the dedication of the roads to public use.

"Georgia cases have not required that the public use the land for any specific period of time in order to impliedly accept the offer of dedication; rather the cases have indicated that the use must simply be over a period of time long enough to indicate an intent or purpose to accept the offer."[15]


"It is presumed that an owner has expressly dedicated streets to the public when she subdivides a tract of land and records a plat showing lots with designated streets."[16] The County contends that there was no offer to dedicate Statham Lakefront Road because the homeowners association made no express offer after the 2010 deed, which transferred ownership of the road to the association. Because the developer subdivided the land and recorded plats in 1981 showing the subdivision and the streets at issue, we must presume that the developer intended to dedicate the roads within the subdivision and Statham Lakefront Road to Lamar Road to the public, as shown on the plats.[17] Moreover, acceptance by the public need not be immediate, "but may be made when public necessity or convenience arises."[18]

Of course, even when there has been an offer to dedicate roads, "[t]he duty of the county to repair the roads . . . does not arise unless the roads are accepted."[19] In this case, it is undisputed that the County did not expressly accept any offer to


dedicate the roads. In its order denying mandamus, the trial court noted that the Board of Commissioners never expressly accepted dedication, and, instead, consistently rejected offers of dedication when they arose at Board meetings. We agree that the Board never expressly accepted any offer to dedicate the roads and took no action when the matter was raised at Board meetings in 1996 and 2007.[20] However,


acceptance of a dedication may be implied.[21] Accordingly, the Board's...

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