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Closing Municipal Streets

Reference Number: MTAS-814
Reviewed Date: 04/11/2023

Distinction Between Closing and Abandoning Streets
It is said in 11 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations, § 30.182, that the distinction between abandonment of a street, and the closing or vacation of a street is that the former is accomplished by inaction, and the latter by a prescribed procedure. Some cases suggest that a city can abandon a street without the benefit of an ordinance. It is said in Wilkins v. Chicago St. L. & N.O.R., Co., 75 S.W. 1026 (1903), that

It is also true that the city has the right to abandon a street, that is, its easement of way, which it holds in trust for the public, or for the public interest; and that upon such abandonment the fee reverts to the adjoining proprietors, if they own to the center of the street…[At 465].

[Also see State v. Taylor, 64 S.W. 766 (1901), and Knoxville v. Sprankle, 9 Tenn. App. 218 (1928).]

But none of those cases clearly say that a municipality can “abandon” a street by inaction. In West Meade Homeowners Association v. WPMC, 778 S.W.2d 365 (1989), WPMC sought to use as an ingress and egress from its development a platted street, only a portion of which had been constructed, and which ended in a cul-de-sac. The homeowners association argued that the city had abandoned that portion of the platted street that had never been constructed. The court rejected that argument, pointing to certain evidence that the city had at least impliedly accepted that portion of the street. There is no hint in that case of how the court would have addressed the homeowners association abandonment argument had there been no such evidence.

The Tennessee courts appear to use the words “abandon,” “close,” and “vacation,” interchangeably with respect to streets. Most municipal charters prescribe a procedure for the passage of ordinances. There may be rare instances where a charter prescribes a special procedure for the passage of ordinances closing streets.