Easing Into Easements

The laws of real property are an intricate web of law and theory dating back to feudal times. Our laws are closely linked to Ye Olde England and, with it, imagine thick accents, powdered wigs and terms such as “profit a prendre” and “lease.”

One such interesting area of the real estate law and something we experience and, perhaps, use on a daily basis deals with “easements.” An easement is an interest held by you in someone else’s land. You don’t own this particular portion of the land and you can’t do whatever you want on it. Easements are for particular uses or purposes by the holder of the easement. You experience easements all of the time. Public utilities have easements to run their pipes or lines across properties to where you live and work. You might walk along an easement when leaving your apartment building every morning and walking to your car.

One recent appeal decided by the California Court of Appeals in 2011 discussed a form of an easement that is likely common in Southern California. The case, Main Street Plaza v. Cartwright & Main, LLC, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. G043569, Apr. 27, 2011, involved a pair of neighboring shopping centers in Irvine and a rear-adjacent industrial property. Between the neighboring shopping centers and the industrial property is an alley; the boundaries of each of the three properties includes a portion of the alley roughly up to the middle of the alley. (p. *3.) In some time prior to the dispute (in the times of Ye Olde Irvine) the owners of the three properties each granted an easement “for railway purposes” to what is now BNSF. (pp. *3-*4.) BNSF is not using the alley for rail services. Main Street Plaza’s tenants, meanwhile, had been using the alley for deliveries, parking and turning vehicles around for well over a decade. (p. *4.)

Main Street sued its neighboring property owners — the industrial park owner and the neighboring shopping center — claiming that it itself had obtained what is called a prescriptive easement over the entire alley (including the parts of the alley that it did not own) to use for parking and deliveries etc. (p. *4.)

Main Street wanted the trial court to determine that it had obtained what is a called a “prescriptive easement.” A prescriptive easement to the easement world what adverse possession is to the real property ownership world. So, with a prescriptive easement in this case involving the alley, if you use the parts of the alley you don’t own for a particular use for a period of time, in addition to other factors outwardly demonstrating your use of the alley without objection to the actual alley-owner, you could gain an easement over that property. (p. *10-*12.) You got all of that?

The appellate court ruling turned on an erroneous trial court ruling that the payment of taxes for the land in the property was a necessary factor to determine whether there was a prescriptive easement.

Without getting into the legal minutiae of the decision, the dispute reminds of how curious legal issues can affect our everyday lives. We drive or walk down alleys frequently. Who owns the alley? If you are a property owner and use the alley, do you have an easement? Do you want or need an easement? Does someone have an easement on your property?

Montez Law can help you negotiate easements with fellow property owners or review the circumstances to protect your property rights, or enhance your property rights.

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