Right-of-way law governs the ability of the public or certain people to travel across land owned by someone else. A right-of way can be granted to public utility companies to maintain or install equipment; to walkers, hikers or bikers; or for water that flows through adjacent property. Some right-of way law grants an easement to a particular property owner to allow access and egress across a neighbor’s land. In farming areas, an easement might be given for tractors and other farm equipment to reach land used for crops.
Right-of way law originated in common law to address roads and pathways that were used for years by the public. In some regions, these uses were formalized, but in other areas it was simply understood that the property owner had made the route accessible to others. Some jurisdictions limit how easements or rights-of way may be used.
For example, a trail or path might be limited to bicycles and walkers. It may or may not allow horses and pets on the right-of-way. In some regions, right-of-way laws include language that allows the public to stop along the path or road to rest or have a snack. Right-of-way law may be more permissive in some countries and more restrictive in others.
Easements are sometimes formalized in recorded property documents. For a property owner who has no other access to his or her land, the easement permits crossing a neighbor’s property to enter land owned by the person holding the easement. This right-of-way law is permanent in some jurisdictions and cannot be revoked unless the use of the land changes. Right-of-way law in other areas contains a clause that allows the easement to revert to the original owner if it is not being used for its intended purpose.
One function of right-of-way law authorizes public access to regional or national parks and recreation areas. In some beach communities, for instance, the shoreline within a certain distance is considered public and cannot be restricted by a person who owns beachfront property. In these cases, the property owner typically is required to grant an easement to the public and may not build fences or other structures that block access to the beach.
Some governments use the power of eminent domain to condemn property that is needed for public works projects. This usually happens when a landowner refuses to consent to an easement and will not sell the property to the government agency. Eminent domain permits the government to buy the property at fair market value if it is needed to benefit the public, such as to widen a highway.