CHILTON COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — CBS 42 is following a land dispute story in Chilton County after Commissioner Allen Williams called us to investigate.

In the northern part of the county heading toward Shelby County, there are several dirt roads that converge to form what’s called County Road 161. That’s where landowner Amanda Bittinger has property she said she has been locked out of.

“This is my property and it’s my right to go to this property,” Bittinger said to the county commission in January.

To access her land, she must cross gates that were installed over 20 years ago over the dirt roads connecting to County Road 161. At one time, she had keys to unlock those gates, but now she said she is locked out. Bittinger told the commission that she received a letter from that property owner.

“I couldn’t have access because they used guns a lot out there, so I read that as if I’m caught on that road, they’re going to shoot me,” Bittinger said.

She hired attorney Spenser Templeton who addressed the commission in April. During that time, commissioners began investigating the issue themselves. Templeton said the commission needed to help them decide that County Road 161 is, indeed, a public road.

“Amanda hates that it’s come to this to where we are now asking the commission to make a decision,” Templeton said. “If so, the adjoining landowners who have put up gates on a public road need to have them removed.”

Williams said the proof that the road is owned by the county is in Bittinger’s deed.

“I know where I stand on it and I continue that stance especially on that workshop we had on vacating roads,” Williams said.

Attorney Taylor Bartlett represents one of the other property owners.

“The property has never been accessed by the public,” Bartlett said. “It has been locked off from all corners.”

Bartlett said the Bittingers were caught hunting illegally off their property.

“That is one reason why the Bittingers have lost access to that property,” Bartlett said.

Another problem with the condition of the country road is the lack of access for first responders. Union Grove Assistant Fire Chief Lee Headly detailed his concerns about the gates in a letter to the commission:

“The blockage of County Road 161 impedes [sic] the ability of the Union Grove Fire Department or any Chilton County fire and rescue from responding to calls in the northern portion of Chilton County. There have been instances in which Shelby County has been dispatched to emergencies due to the fact that Chilton could not respond due to the road blockage. There have also been situations where we have had to waste precious time going through Pine Valley Plantation and other routes to get to the land of RD Warren and others due to the road blockage. If County Road 161 were accessible, Chilton fire and rescue could perform their duties more efficiently and effectively. Also, in the present condition, Chilton fire and rescue are dependent upon Shelby to respond to incidences in Chilton to which we cannot access due to the blockage of County Road 161. Due to the fact that the fire departments of Chilton are funded by Chilton taxes and Shelby fire departments are funded by Shelby taxes, we do not need to be dependent upon Shelby to take care of our calls just because we cannot access the location.”

Bartlett said no one should be driving on the road because it is very steep and hilly.

“The argument that a fire truck needs to get down this road – there is no reason why a fire truck would need to be down this road,” Bartlett said. “If you go off either side of it, you’re in a ravine.”

This leaves the question – is County Road 161 a public or private road?

Here’s a breakdown according to Alabama state law of how roads are created and abandoned.

A road becomes a county road if:

  1. Built for public use as such
  2. Dedication/acceptance
  3. Prescription

There must be a factual determination made by the county commission. A road dedication or land donation doesn’t create a county road – but it allows for one that the public can use.

If it is to be a county road the county commission must accept it as such by a resolution. The county is not required to accept roads if they do not meet minimum standards.

Creation of Public Road by Prescription:

  1. Open, undefined roadway with continuous use over 20 years becomes public automatically
  2. Character of use like mail or school bus route, landowners only vs general public
  3. County has maintained it
  4. Maps and deeds show road as public or private
  5. Position of property owners
    • Road must be unobstructed
    • If obstructed, clear indication use is with permission and he/she not relinquishing ownership
    • If road runs over unimproved or turned out lands – use considered permissive

According to Alabama law, the county engineer and attorney need to be involved in research behind a road. If the county commission does decide a road is a county road by prescription, it is suggested it formally adopts the road as a county road.

To formally vacate a road, the following must happen:

  1. A public hearing to take final action at a commission meeting
  2. 30 days’ notice of scheduled hearing
  3. Citizen alleging to be affected by vacation can file a written objection at the public hearing
  4. If voted upon to vacate, a resolution must be filed in probate court
    • Notice of vacation published once in newspaper within two weeks of resolution adoption

If the county decides to vacate a road, the attorney general said it cannot rescind that decision. If looking to reestablish it, that must be done by statutory procedures. Road vacation cannot deprive property owners of means to ingress and egress to and from the property.

Acting County Attorney Ben Goldman referred to an opinion from the county’s engineer back in 2000 who studied the road and decided it is private. This means, the landowners must settle the dispute among themselves.

“If there was any doubt 23 years ago, they were put on notice that the county viewed it as being a private road, not a public road,” Goldman said.

Templeton told CBS 42 they are working on a settlement right now – she just could not go into specifics.

Moving forward, the county now has software to help it keep track of work orders and make sure no road is forgotten. The commission approved funding in April to purchase the TTL software to do so.

County Engineer Heath Sexton said 42 counties in the state are already using it. He said it will help them to monitor over 600 miles of gravel road county-wide.

“It will capture our daily activity so we can create work reports for all our roads, but certainly the work orders we receive, the calls, we can track to make sure we don’t have any slip through the cracks,” Sexton said. “We’ll be able to generate reports that show us which ones have been closed, which ones haven’t. This will improve our response to our work orders.”

County Commission Chair Jimmie Hardee said the purchasing of this software was not a direct result of the land dispute along County Road 161. Hardee said it is a blessing for the commission.

“The things he’s going to implement and the support from this commission, we’re going to see a big difference in our dirt roads, and we have a lot,” Hardee said. “We have a lot to maintain.”