As a real estate lawyer, I am asked at least once a week about the rights and obligations of easement holders. If property owner A has an access easement and road over B’s land, may B install a gate? If A and B share a driveway or parking area, who can use and who must maintain? Can A park or build on B’s access or pipeline easement?
It just so happens that a new court decision discusses easements. The judges did a fine job explaining the rules of the road when it comes to easements which I want to pass on to y’all. That is the reason for this column. Normally I don’t even have a reason.
TURLOCK IRRIGATION DISTRICT EASEMENT
Summarizing the facts to the basics, Inzana gave the Turlock Irrigation District a 12.5-foot-wide irrigation and pipeline easement over his land so Turlock could install a waterline serving its customers. The easement was recorded, so binding on Inzana and his successors in interest.
The easement granted “a right to construct, maintain, operate, and replace a pipeline and related structures thereon by said improvement district… and the right to ingress and egress from the easement…” Turlock installed a waterline. Years later, Inzana planted 2,400 pistachio trees on his property – some in the easement area – many within three feet of the waterline. Is that legal? Can Turlock have the trees removed?
TREE REMOVAL ORDER
Turlock issued a Tree Removal Order demanding that Inzana remove any trees planted within the pipeline easement “to avoid maintenance and operation problems in the future.” Turlock was concerned that trees planted within the easement would grow roots which would eventually impact the pipeline’s integrity causing it to crack and leak. Inzana argued the trees did not interfere with the pipeline, the trees and pipeline were compatible.
Turlock threatened to shut off Inzana’s water so he filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus asking to keep the pistachio trees – claiming they did not unreasonably interfere with Turlock’s pipeline and easement.
The basic issue was whether Inzana’s trees unreasonably interfered with Turlock’s use of its easement.
THE RIGHTS OF EASEMENT OWNERS
The court’s Opinion explained the rights of a land owner vis a vis the rights of an easement owner in easy-to-understand language. Easy for a nerd (but cool) lawyer, hopefully understandable to you. Here is what the court wrote:
“The rights and duties between the owner of an easement (dominant tenement) and the owner of the servient tenement (land owner)…are correlative. Each is required to respect the rights of the other. Neither party can conduct activities or place obstructions on the property that unreasonably interfere with the other party’s use of the property. In this respect, there are no absolute rules of conduct. The responsibility of each party to the other and the “reasonableness” of use of the property depends on the nature of the easement…”
In this case, Inzana and his trees could not unreasonably affect Turlock’s ability to use the easement with waterline.
“The servient (land) owner may use his property in any manner not inconsistent with the easement so long as it does not unreasonably impede the dominant tenant (Turlock) in his rights. ‘The interest of the parties must be balanced to strike a reasonable accommodation’…”
The Court cited a case where the land owner was entitled to install a gate along a fence on his property as long as he provided a key to the road easement holder.
RULING FAVORS TURLOCK
The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled for Turlock finding that the trees were planted too close to the pipeline, eventually they would cause a maintenance issue and potentially damage the pipeline with tree roots impacting the pipeline’s integrity. Even though the pistachio trees were not causing damage to the pipeline, the court determined there was a strong potential for damage should the trees remain in place. The pistachio trees unreasonably interfered with Turlock’s (dominant) right to maintain the pipeline.
In closing, the court wrote that Inzana “relinquished the right to complain when he granted the (pipeline) easement.” He had to yield to the rights of the easement holder and remove the trees.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.portersimon.com.
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