Last week, Barnes County Highway Superintendent Kerry Johnson responded to a complaint that a campaign sign was posted in the county’s right of way along a county road, obstructing the view of oncoming traffic.
Johnson drove out to the area and noticed the field appeared in the county’s right of way as well. The right-of-way on the road extends 75 feet from the center and the edge of the field was 39 feet from the center.
Johnson called the landowner and said the sign had to be moved and that the owner was farming 30 feet into the county’s right of way. He said he regretted having to tell the farmer that the crops would have to be taken down, but it’s part of his job.
“We don’t want to do that, we want to give everybody the opportunity to get their crop off and go about it in a nice way rather than go out and dig a crop up and seed it to grass immediately,” he said. “We’ll give them the opportunity to voluntarily comply, but if they don’t we will do what we have to do.”
Johnson said the Highway Department is focusing on farmers’ encroachment into county right of ways for two reasons. The first is when the Highway Department accepts federal funds for highway projects, the county signs a construction and maintenance agreement stating the road and the right of way will be maintained.
“When the right of way is being farmed, we’re basically in violation of that agreement, and that could potentially affect our future federal funding,” he said. “They could come back and say, ‘you signed this agreement, you’re not honoring this agreement so we are not going to give you any federal aid.”
Johnson said the other major factor for enforcement is traffic safety.
“Corn has really brought this to light. When you get corn that’s close to the road obviously deer and wild life will not give drivers much of a chance to react,” Johnson said, adding that cars at intersections are just as hard to see and react to.
The Highway Department actually began enforcing the right of ways a couple years ago, taking one road at a time, sending out letters to all the landowners and getting one road into compliance then moving on to the next one. The department will also start putting notices in with tax statements.
Johnson said he understands why farmers would want to use every inch available to them, but counties and townships may be liable for accidents that occur due to reduced visibility from right of way encroachment.
“It’s not a matter of being sued, it’s a matter of doing what’s right, saving a life or preventing an injury,” he said. “The law’s always been, it hasn’t changed.”