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What Exactly Is a Recreational Use Statute?

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Children looking at a horse (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Unlike Ashley, there really is no common theme to my posts. Today I’m going to focus on a law that does come up from time to time, Maryland’s Recreational Use Statute (RUS). RUS encourages owners to allow access to their properties for recreational use by lowering the standard of care owed to the visitor, and is designed to encourage landowners/tenants to make lands available to recreational users. This statute imposes no duty of care on the owner to keep premises safe or give a warning for any recreational or educational user of the property. Rather, under the statute the duty of care owed to a recreational or educational user is the same as the duty of care owed to a trespasser and a landowner/tenant, i.e., to refrain from willful or malicious failure to guard against dangerous conditions on the property.

Tractor pulling people in a hayride (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

In order to gain the protections from the RUS, a landowner/tenant must allow the guests on the property for a recreational or educational use. A recreational use is “any recreational purpose.” (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(f)). For example, allowing a friend to use your property to ride the friend’s horse or for a hike would be considered recreational uses. The statute is broad to allow it to encompass as many recreational uses as possible.

An educational use includes nature studies, farm visitations for an educational purposes; practice judging of livestock, horticultural crops, or other farm products, organized visits to farms by school children, 4-H clubs, FFA clubs, and others as part of their educational programs; historical reenactments; and observation of historical, archaeological, or scientific sites.” (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(c)(1)-(6)). For example, if Sally allowed other farmers as her farm to learn about certain practices utilized by Sally would be considered an educational use. Sally would also be able to invite area school kids on her farm as part of an education field trip this would also be considered an educational use.

Children and parents attending farm event with hay and toy tractors (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

A landowner/tenant must also allow the recreational or educational user access to his/her property for no charge. The law defines charge to mean “price or fee asked for services, entertainment, recreation performed, products offered for sale on land or in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon land.” (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(b)(1)). This means a landowner/tenant may not charge an admission fee to recreational or educational users and still be within the scope of the statute. Courts in other states have found that “charge” does not include fees paid to park a vehicle, camper, etc. as long as the fee is unrelated to the admission of people using the property for a recreational purpose. Farmers should also refrain from offering products for sale on the land in order to retain the protections of the RUS law.

But the definition of charge does contain three exemptions. Recreational users can share with the landowner/tenant any game, fish, or other products from the recreational use (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(b)(2)(i)). For example, Steve allows his nephew to hunt on Steve’s property. In return for access to the property, Steve’s nephew often gives meat from wildlife killed on Steve’s property to Steve. This would not be considered a “charge.”

Tractor on a grass field (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Benefits “to the land arising from the recreational use” also are not considered charges under the RUS. (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(b)(2)(ii)). This means the benefit to the property from allowing others to use for a recreational/educational purpose (such as an increase in property values) is not considered a “charge” under the statutory definition. For example, deer have been destroying your corn crop and you allow anyone who wants to hunt to come on your property for deer hunting. The deer hunters are successful and your corn crop is not further damaged by deer. This benefit to your land, fewer deer to damage your crops, would not be considered a “charge” under the statutory definition.

“[C]ontributions in kind or services to promote the management or conservation of the land” (Nat. Res. § 5-1101(b)(2)(iii)) are the third statutory exemption from the definition of “charge.” This allows a landowner/tenant to collect contributions that go to the sound management of the natural resources found on the property. For example, a forest management specialist enjoys using Mary’s property to hunt and fish on. In return for access, the specialist provides Mary with expertise in how to better manage the property. This service provided would be excluded from the statutory definition of “charge.”

Agritourism operators, wineries, and any other farmers selling farm products to consumers are not likely within the scope of the RUS law. Visitors to these operations are considered invitees and would need to be protected from unreasonable dangers. The RUS law does not apply to those operations because the definition of “charge” is met by collection of fees for admission or rides, or payment for produce, etc. For example, the operators of a corn maze typically charge an admittance fee or charge some fee to use the corn maze. Or, a winery operator would be excluded from the RUS law’s protections because the operator offers products, like wine, for sale on the property.

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