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Legal Matters: Tips on how to keep a private road private

How can the owner of a private road stop the general public from using it? A frustrated reader wants to know.

A private road in legal terms is a road not open to the general public without permission, just as a lawn or a farmer’s cornfield are closed to public use. The owner can grant individuals the right to use his road. There is a special category — privately owned roads the public is allowed to use without specific permission from the owner, such as streets within shopping centers or sports arenas.

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The owner of a private road who wants to keep it private must post notices such as “no trespassing” or “private road” signs or paint marks to warn passersby. Maryland law defines a private road as “any way or place that: (1) is privately owned; and (2) is used for vehicular travel by its owner and by those having express or implied permission from the owner, but not by other persons.”

Individuals who ignore posted signs and use private roads without permission are trespassing, a crime under state law. A first violation is punishable by a fine of $500 and-or 90 days in jail. A second violation can be punished by one year in jail and-or a $2,500 fine.

One local owner of a private road reported recently that he often spots trespassers who use the road as a shortcut between public streets. He calls the police, but the trespassers have disappeared by the time police arrive at the scene, he said.

If the owner decides to block the road, it would be a good idea to check first with the county or town government to find out whether there are county or city ordinances or other regulations that apply to his situation.

If the road owner encounters no government restrictions on blocking the road, he would be wise to find out whether the trespassers, or anyone else who uses the private road, may have an easement allowing them to use it. An individual who owns or rents property that can be accessed only by way of a private road may have an easement in his or her deed. If an easement exists, the road owner is not legally entitled to block access.

If no easement is written into a deed, trespassers or others who use the road to travel, for example, from their homes to a store or restaurant, may have an easement by prescription. That is an easement created by continuous and uninterrupted use of the road for more than 20 years, which establishes the right to continue using it without written or verbal authorization.

If a prescriptive easement does not exist, the road owner would have a legal right to block the road.

But before acting, it would be wise to check with county or city zoning authorities to find out whether there are any notice requirements or other steps he must take before closing his road to outsiders.

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