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Court Limits Poorly Drafted Easement to Historical Use

Boundary, Fence, & Tree Disputes, Easements, and Real Estate Law by Simon Offord, Esq.

The recent case of Rye v. Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Co., Inc. affirms the long-standing principle in easement law that an express easement over a general area does not automatically provide the easement owner exclusive use of the entire area.

In Rye, the defendant owned an easement over “a portion” of Rye’s property. Defendant Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal used the easement as a driveway for its garbage trucks and for storage of its garbage bins.

The express easement was contained in a 1981 grant deed that reserved: “[a]n easement for ingress, egress, parking, storage, utilities over a portion of [Rye’s property]. . .”

Rye’s property consisted of both paved and unpaved areas. For years, defendant used the paved area and a small portion of the unpaved area. The trial court held that the defendant’s easement rights were limited to this historical use of the paved area and ten (10) feet of the unpaved area.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. The court emphasized that when the instrument of conveyance grants an easement in general terms, without specifying or limiting the extent of its use, the permissible use is determined in the first instance by the intention of the parties and the purposes of the grant. The Court specifically stated that “once the easement has been used for a reasonable time, the extent of its use is established by the past use.”

The court disagreed with defendant’s contention that the grant deed permitted use over the entire parcel. The express language in the grant deed reserved an easement over “a portion of Parcel One.” The court noted that while the area subject to the easement was specified, “the extent and location of the parking and storage on the easement is not.” The court therefore concluded that the precise area of use must be inferred from the intention of the parties. (Civ. Code, § 806.)

The court held that there was no clear indication of an intent to extend the parking and storage use to all of the area subject to the easement. The only admissible evidence of the parties’ intent was the past usage of the subject property and that usage was confined to the paved area and a portion of the unpaved area of the easement. Accordingly, the court concluded that the scope of the easement was limited by its historical use.

As a further justification for its holding, the court noted that if the defendant was permitted to use the entire area subject to the easement, the defendant could effectively prevent the plaintiffs from “effective use” of their property, thereby creating an exclusive easement. Because the language in the grant deed did not suggest an exclusive easement, allowing such use would effectively create an exclusive easement that would be contrary to the easement language and the apparent  intent of the parties.

The Rye decision is consistent with prior California cases that determine the extent and scope of a generally-deeded easement by reference to the historical use.

This case reaffirms the importance of drafting easements to ensure there is a clear understanding of the intentions of the parties and how limited or expansive the interest granted is.  Otherwise, the Court may use the historical use of the easement to determine the scope of the easement, and this will leave both parties at the whim of the trier of fact.

If you have any questions about easements or property line disputes, please do not hesitate to contact Brewer Offord & Pedersen LLP at (650) 327-2900 or on the web at www.brewerfirm.com.

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