WHAT IS A PUBLIC EASEMENT? WHO CAN USE IT? WHO MAINTAINS IT?
Maine’s public easements are not maintained with public funds but may allow unfettered use by foot, motor vehicle or utilities depending on which law applies.
A PUBLIC EASEMENT is an easement held by a municipality for public access to land or water. According to one statute, it is restricted to use by foot or motor vehicle; another says it includes an easement for utilities. According to the Maine Supreme Court, it gives the public an "unfettered right of access," but the municipality has no obligation to provide maintenance of a public easement.
PRIVATE WAYS laid out pursuant to statute prior to 1965 are public easements, and if the private way was declared to be "subject to gates and bars," under current statute those gates can be removed. Town ways DISCONTINUED after 1965 automatically become public easements unless the town specifically votes otherwise. After 1976, county ways within organized townships became town ways, so former county ways discontinued after 1976 also automatically become public easements upon discontinuance unless the town specifically votes otherwise. Roads which are ABANDONED pursuant to statute (because the public has had no need for them for 30 years) revert to the same status as a discontinued road: therefore they also automatically become public easements, and there is generally no opportunity for the town to vote not to retain a public easement.
WHO KEEPS A PUBLIC EASEMENT IN REPAIR? NO ONE! Under Maine law, the public is no longer obligated to provide any maintenance for public easements. Owners of abutting land are not specifically prohibited from doing road repairs, but concerns about liability may make them unwilling to contribute any private efforts. Besides, once an abutter makes the road passable, they cannot prohibit the public from using it in any way they wish. Unrestricted public use can quickly destroy any road improvements.
Maine ROADWays' Motto is, "Build a better public easement and the world will BEAT the pathway to your door!"
In short, A PUBLIC EASEMENT IS A ROAD WHICH ANYONE CAN USE, BUT WHICH NO ONE IS OBLIGATED TO KEEP IN REPAIR.
ARE YOU CONFUSED YET?
To read the Maine Statutes concerning Public Easements, go to the Public Easements 23 MRSA 3021 page.
(c) Roberta Manter 2016