In October, 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a decision defining the obligations of Ohio counties with respect to the maintenance of bridges on non-county roads serving a limited number of properties.
In The City of Independence v. Office of the Cuyahoga County Executive, 2014-Ohio-4650, the Ohio Supreme Court waded into a dispute between the City of Independence, a Cleveland suburb with 7,000 residents, and Cuyahoga County, regarding the maintenance responsibility for a bridge on a non-county road within the City. Both the City and the County claimed that the other was responsible for the maintenance of the bridge, which was on a dead-end road that provided access to a handful of businesses. Under R.C. § 5591.02 and 5591.21, Ohio counties are responsible for the maintenance of “roads of general and public utility,” even if those bridges are not on county roads or if those bridges are on roads that are within municipalities. These statutes contain no definition of “roads of general and public utility.” Thus, the question before the Court was whether a bridge on a road that provided access only to a few properties on a dead-end road met the definition of a “road of general and public utility.” If the road was a “road of general and public utility,” the County would be responsible for its maintenance. On the other hand, if the road served only a local purpose, the City would be responsible for its maintenance.
Urging reversal of the Court of Appeals, the County argued that certain broad categories of roads, such as dead-end roads and roads that serviced only “isolated business enclaves” existing entirely within a single municipality are not, by definition, “roads of general and public utility.” Thus, the County argued for categorical definitions of roads the maintenance for which Ohio counties are not responsible under R.C. § 5591.02 and R.C. § 5591.21.
In a 6-1 decision, the Court declined the City’s invitation to adopt whole categories of roads that would not be of “general and public utility.” The Court noted that even dead-end roads and roads that served only a few properties could be necessary for the public for more than just local purposes. In fact, the Court noted that there were over 100,000 vehicles using the road and bridge annually to access the properties on the road. Based on these figures, the Court found that it could not adopt a hard definition for “general and public utility” that excluded the road simply because it was a dead-end road entirely within one municipality, or because it served only a limited number of properties.
In the lone dissent, Judge O’Connor wrote that the evidence showed that the road was part of the “county-wide road network” that as a result, the maintenance responsibilities for the road belonged to the City in which the road was located, not the County.