ALCS Comments on Private Road Act
January 24, 2008
Hon. Ron Buxton, Member
Pennsylvania State House of Representatives
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Dear Representative Buxton,
I am writing to you about the Private Road Act in Pennsylvania, which has come under scrutiny due to a recent frivolous use of the Act in Cumberland County and a subsequent judicial disposition.
The Private Road Act was created to ensure that no parcel of land would become landlocked, meaning that the land could not be without deeded legal, permanent access of record. Many times properties were (and sometimes still are) subdivided, but access was not reserved to the parent lot or even the subdivided lots. This is especially common in rural areas. Pennsylvania's fractured form of local government aggravates the issue.
For the landowner, a lack of legal, permanent access results in all kinds of problems: Artificially lower property values, petty disputes with neighbors who unethically seek to control the property by blocking access to it, state and federal agencies that use a lack of access to force below-market-value sales or blockages of timber sales until the land is signed over to the agency, an inability to obtain building or development approvals, and an inability to get utilities to a building site. Obviously, some tool or law is needed to prevent properties from being landlocked, and presently the PRA serves that purpose, if inefficiently.
I have used the PRA and can report back that it is expensive, clunky, painful, but ultimately necessary under present law and practice to the fair disposition of material disputes over permanent access to land. Rather than simply abolishing the PRA, as the Patriot News recently editorialized, Pennsylvania legislators should examine the reasons for the PRA in the first place. Doing so reveals that the need for something like it still exists, or at least the cause of its need must be addressed some other way.
A reasonable substitute for the PRA would be a state law that says the no parcel in the Commonwealth can be without permanent, legal access to it, that all parcels lacking legal access will be granted access, and that a single state board of review would be created to quickly adjudicate issues that arise under the statute. Current procedure under the PRA is a bit loose, and the threshold for establishing a need to trigger the PRA is pretty low. The Board of View (comprised of an attorney, surveyor and a realtor) is supposed to flesh these issues out on-site, but an awful lot of litigation money can be spent by both sides before a decision is rendered. This wide window invites the kind of frivolous and newsworthy lawsuit brought and recently resolved in Cumberland County.
In sum, I recommend that the PRA be revisited, but that the goal of that effort is to address the issues that the Act was created to address, rather than simplistically focusing on the occasional problems the Act creates. I am willing to serve as a witness or presenter at any hearings on this topic.
Yours very truly,
President and CEO