By Glen Hansen

In Gion v. City of Santa Cruz (1970) 2 Cal.3d 29, the California Supreme Court held that private owners of certain coastal property who allowed the public to use the property for recreational purposes over a period of years thereby impliedly dedicated property rights to the public. The Legislature responded to Gion by enacting Civil Code section 1009. That section generally provides that “no use” of private noncoastal property after the legislation’s effective date of March 4, 1972, will give rise to “a vested right” in the public to continue using the property permanently, unless the property owner makes an express, irrevocable offer to dedicate the property to public use. In Scher v. Burke (2017) 3 Cal.5th 136, the California Supreme Court resolved a dispute between the Courts of Appeal and held that section 1009 bars all use of non-coastal private real property, not simply recreational use of such property, from ever ripening into an implied dedication to the public after March 4, 1972.

In Scher, Plaintiffs owned property along Henry Ridge Motorway, which is located in the unincorporated Topanga Canyon area in the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County. Plaintiffs purchased their property along Henry Ridge Motorway in 1998 with a 1948 easement that only gave them access to the north. Defendants’ properties were located south of Plaintiffs’ property along Henry Ridge Motorway and/or along an adjacent road.

Much of the case concerned whether and in what manner Henry Ridge Motorway and the adjacent road were used by the public. When Pauline Stewart, the “matriarch of Henry Ridge,” moved to Henry Ridge Motorway in 1977, it was merely a “fire road.” In 1984, the Los Angeles County Fire Department notified Stewart that it would no longer maintain the road because the “County had designated it as a private road.” Stewart described Henry Ridge Motorway in a 1988 letter as “a road on private property so it is considered a private road, it is not a public thoroughfare, even though it is open to the public for all practical purposes.” In the past, several Defendants recorded irrevocable offers to dedicate easements to the public for a hiking and/or an equestrian trail over those portions of Henry Ridge Motorway that crossed over Defendants’ properties. Defendants have also sought to limit public access over Henry Ridge Motorway and the adjacent road south of Plaintiffs’ property, including locking gates, “religiously” stopping drivers on those roads that they did not recognize, and placing signs that forbid trespassing or state “No access to Henry Ridge Road. Locked gates ahead.”

Plaintiffs alleged, among other things, Defendants have acquiesced to the dedication to public use of the entirety of Henry Ridge Motorway and the adjacent road across defendants’ properties, and that Plaintiffs are entitled to use Henry Ridge Motorway and the adjacent road as a public street. The Superior Court for Los Angeles County held, among other things, that Henry Ridge Motorway and the adjacent road had been impliedly dedicated as public streets under Civil Code section 1009. Defendants appealed part of the judgment. The Court of Appeal reversed the implied dedication part of the judgment in a published portion of its decision. The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal, and remanded to the Superior Court for entry of judgment in favor of Defendants.

In 1971, the Legislature enacted Civil Code section 1009 to restrict the common law implied dedications to the public. Subdivision (b) of that section declares that

“no use of such property by the public after the effective date of this section shall ever ripen to confer upon the public or any governmental body or unit a vested right to continue to make such use permanently, in the absence of an express written irrevocable offer of dedication of such property to such use, made by the owner thereof in the manner prescribed in subdivision (c) of this section, which has been accepted by the county, city, or other public body to which the offer of dedication was made … .”

That statutory restriction was made effective March 4, 1972.

Several cases included language and/or dicta that section 1009, subdivision (b), applied only to recreational uses from developing into an implied public dedication. (See Hanshaw v. Long Valley Road Assn. (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 471; Pulido v. Pereira (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 1246; Bustillos v. Murphy (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 1277.) In Scher, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the language in those cases, and held that section 1009, subdivision (b), barred all public use, not just recreational use, from developing into an implied public dedication. The Supreme Court granted review to resolve that disagreement among the Courts of Appeal.

The Court held that section 1009, subdivision (b), applies to non-recreational use of roadways for vehicle access as it applies to recreational use of other private noncoastal property. The Court reviewed the explicit language, legislative concerns, general legislative scheme and legislative history of the statute, and concluded that “section 1009, subdivision (b) contains no implicit exception for non-recreational use of roadways.” In so holding, the Court disapproved Hanshaw, Pulido and Bustillos to the extent they are inconsistent with the Court’s opinion.

So at the end of the litigation, the Supreme Court essentially followed the testimony of the “matriarch of Henry Ridge.” Ms. Stewart testified that she was unaware of facts that would show that the general public had used Henry Ridge Motorway, over the adjacent road, to access a public road. She added: “I don’t know anybody in their right mind that would even try to go that way.” Apparently, everyone ended the case in their right mind.

Glen Hansen is a Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.