Money and Dirt: A blog on legal issues impacting California real estate investment, development, and secured lending

Equitable Easement Without Preexisting Use?

When a landowner whose parcel is landlocked needs to gain legal access to the property, an “equitable easement” is often the remedy of choice.  An equitable easement is normally supported by preexisting use of the easement route.  But not always.

A recent opinion from California’s Second District Court of Appeal — Hinrichs v. Melton — holds that evidence of preexisting use is not required for a court to grant an equitable easement.  Instead, the court will weigh the relative hardships and irreparable harms to the parties.

Facts

The plaintiff (Hinrichs) inherited two contiguous parcels of real property from his mother.  The southern parcel had a residence.  The northern parcel was undeveloped, with a rocky ridge running through the parcel.  Hinrichs lived in Alaska since the 1980s.

In 1999, Hinrichs sold the southern parcel to the Asquith Family Limited Partnership.  The conveyance left the northern parcel landlocked, with the Asquith property to the south, and properties owned by others (Melton and Valiulis) to the north and east.

All parcels were between 20 and 30 acres in size, and none had direct access to a public road.  The parties accessed the nearest public road by using Ladera Road, a private road cutting through portions of the parcels not owned by Hinrichs.  The other owners did not dispute Hinrichs’ right to use Ladera Road, but contested his right to access Ladera Road over any portion of their parcels.

Trial court proceedings

Hinrichs sued for an easement over either “the trail” (an unpaved path passing over the Melton and Valiulis parcels) or through other areas running through the Melton and Valiulis parcels.

The trial court rejected Hinrichs’ claim for an easement over the trail, finding that if Hinrichs ever had the claimed easement, it was extinguished by adverse possession.  The evidence showed that Hinrichs had not driven on the trail since 1994.  When he tried driving the trail in 2002, he stopped after only 50 feet because the trail was so overgrown.  When Valiulis purchased his parcel in 2003, there were large boulders blocking the trail, and Valiulis added additional boulders and a barbed wire fence across the entrance to the trail to prevent its use.

However, the trial court granted Hinrichs an easement by necessity over the Asquith parcel (which would require the construction of a short roadway), and an equitable easement over a small portion of the Melton parcel.  The court balanced the hardships, and found that without the easement, Hinrichs would be landlocked, while Melton would “suffer little to no harm” from the use of the easement since it was at the very back of the parcel, rarely used, and separated from the rest of the parcel by a creek bed.

The trial court’s judgment left almost no one satisfied — Hinrichs, the Meltons, and Asquith appealed.

Court of Appeal’s opinion

The court of appeal affirmed in full.

As to the Asquith appeal, the court held that without the ordered easement, Hinrichs’ parcel would be landlocked.  The court rejected Asquith’s argument that Hinrichs’ claim was barred by the five year statute of limitations in Code of Civil Procedure section 318 applicable to quiet title actions, holding that the five year period did not apply to claims for an easement by necessity.  The court held: “An easement by necessity cannot be extinguished as long as the necessity exists.”

As to Hinrichs’ appeal, the court rejected Hinrichs’ argument that the route chosen for the easement over the Asquith parcel was “highly problematic” and would require the removal of a significant amount of dirt and fill and the construction of retaining walls.  The court held: “Hinrichs cites no authority that he is entitled to the most direct route, or the most convenient route, or the route that is the least expensive to construct.”

Finally, the court issued it most significant holding in response to the Meltons’ appeal.  The Meltons argued that the trial court erred by granting the easement over their parcel because Hinrich failed to prove any preexisting use of the easement.  The court held: “It may be true that an equitable easement often involves a preexisting use of the servient owner’s property.  But a preexisting use is not an element of an equitable easement.”  The court also confirmed that the small portion of land subjected to the easement was “seldom visited” by the Meltons and “had little or no development potential.”

Lesson

While the Hinrichs opinion has many useful pointers regarding the establishment of equitable easements, the most significant holding is that a plaintiff claiming an equitable easement need not prove preexisting use of the easement.

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