What is an Exclusive Easement in California?
Easements are frequently used in real estate contracts. An easement grants the non-owner of a property the right to use that property for a specific purpose. The party for whom the easement is granted may derive a number of benefits from the property, and this is often given in exchange for some type of compensation or consideration, but it does not convey any ownership rights.
One common example of this type of an easement would be a utility company that is granted the right to run its power lines across land it does not own. It would be impractical for the utility company to buy up all the land it would need to run its power lines, so obtaining easements from various property owners makes more sense.
Easements are often granted from one private property owner to another for various purposes. For example, if one owner has land that is isolated and he needs to cross his neighbor’s property in order to access his own land, he may obtain an easement to build a driveway across his neighbor’s property.
Most easements are non-exclusive, meaning that the owner retains the right to use the property, and the right to grant easements to others for various uses. One scenario in which easements may be granted to multiple parties is when road access is granted across a private property owner’s land to access a property for public use, such as a school or shopping center. With a non-exclusive easement, the property owner may continue to use the land as they choose, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of the easement holder(s).
Exclusive Easements in California
Although they are rare, there is a type of easement that may restrict the rights of the property owner and others to use the land. This is known as an exclusive easement. With this type of arrangement, only one party (or maybe a limited number of parties) have the right to use the land for a specified purpose.
There are a few ways that an exclusive easement may be acquired. First of all, exclusivity may be expressly granted by the property owner in a contract. Going back to the owner whose property is landlocked and needs to cross his neighbor’s property to access it, the contract could state explicitly that only the current owner (of the landlocked property) and future owners have the right to use the specified parcel of land as a driveway. This would exclude the owner from granting an easement to any other party.
An exclusive easement may also be implied due to a party’s exclusive use of land without the owner’s objection for a certain period of time. This is similar to the legal concept known as “adverse possession”, where another party can come onto a piece of land, occupy it for a certain length of time without objection, and gain legal ownership of it. The only difference is that an easement does not convey ownership of the land.
Another way an exclusive easement could be implied is by a party’s conduct on a property. For example, if a water district obtains an easement to build and maintain a reservoir on a portion of a private property owner’s land, the water district may be entitled to exclusive use of the land because this may be necessary to prevent contamination of the water.
This has been known to happen between private property owners as well. In a case from 2007 (Blackmore v. Powell), a property owner granted an easement to his neighbor “for parking and garage purposes.” At the time the easement was granted, there was no garage on the property. The easement holder built a garage later, and a court held that the language in the contract not only entitled them to build the garage, they also granted exclusive use of the garage finding that it would be impractical to share it with the owner.
What Does the Term “Exclusive” Mean?
There have been a number of legal disputes over the years over the meaning of the word “exclusive” when it comes to exclusive easements. Does it only mean that the easement holder (and anyone else mentioned in the contract) has the exclusive right to use it? Or does it also mean that the owner is excluded from using the property as well?
In Blackmore v. Powell, the court did find that the landowner could not use the garage because it would be impractical. In another dispute, Gray v. McCormick (2008), a landowner wanted to use the property (for which he had granted an easement to his neighbor to use as a driveway) to bring his horses back and forth to their barn and pasture. The neighbor who held the easement wanted to pave the driveway and make other improvements and did not want the horses crossing it. A California appellate court found in favor of the easement holder, pointing to the exclusive use clause in the contract.
Call Our San Diego Real Estate Attorneys for Assistance with Land Use Issues
Easements are commonly used in real estate, but as we have seen in so many cases, they can also be the source of contentious legal disputes. If you are involved in a real estate deal in California, it is absolutely essential to have the contract reviewed by an experienced attorney, so the language is precise and in keeping with your best interests. A properly written contract can save you untold stress and money by helping to avoid an expensive legal battle down the road.
For any type of legal help with easements and other real estate matters in Southern California, contact the seasoned attorneys at Garmo and Garmo, LLP today. Call our office at 619-441-2500 or send us a message through our web contact form to schedule a consultation.