SIGNS? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ SIGNS
The Minnesota DNR built the Halma Swampland Wildlife Management Area for the tourists from down south. You know, just a place to watch birds, hunt deer and bear, and be drilled by mosquitoes the size of floatplanes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the State then put up signs to stop visitors — including the neighboring Andersons — from racing their ATVs, cars, and pickups up and down the wildlife trails. A year later, the State fenced off the boundaries, right across one of the trials.
Sadly, the Andersons’ raison d’être – a Minnesota term meaning “it’s what we live for” – for living next to the swamp was to race their ATVs, cars, and pickups up and down the wildlife trails. So they hired one of them fancy-pants city slickers with an armful of lawbooks. He told the Anderson clan that they had a prescriptive easement, that is, a right to run their pickups and cars up and down the WMA trails, because they had done it for so long.
The State unsurprisingly took a dim view of the Andersons’ activities, arguing that the recreational use statutes — not to mention Minnesota’s policy of encouraging private recreational use of land (but probably not pickup trucks being driven up and down trails) — meant that no one could acquire a prescriptive easement on recreational lands.
The Court had to balance competing interests here. Although one might expect that the judiciary would bend over backward in favor of a state-run recreational area, it played the case right down the middle. The Andersons won their prescriptive easements, but the court held the easements were not transferable, and they would expire on the deaths of the particular Andersons named in the suit.
Anderson v. State, 2007 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 911, 2007 WL 2472359 (Minn.App. Sept. 4, 2007). Since the 1930s, the Andersons had owned a piece of land next to property now owned by the State of Minnesota. The state bought its parcel from a private owner in 1989 and created the Halma Swamp Wildlife Management Area. The WMA is managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR put up signs prohibiting motorized vehicles on the property and fenced across a trail where it enters the WMA. Because the Andersons had used the trails on what was now state land for more than 60 years, often driving cars, pick-up trucks, and all-terrain vehicles on them, they sued the state, claiming a prescriptive easement. The trial court found the Andersons had a prescriptive easement by motor vehicle over five trail segments in a section of the WMA. The court held that the right is not assignable and will terminate with the lives of the named Andersons. The state appealed.
Held: The Andersons had a right to the prescriptive easement. The Court described an easement as an interest in land in the possession of another which entitles the easement owner to a limited use or use of the land in which the interest exists. Whether a prescriptive easement exists is determined in a manner similar to title by adverse possession.
A prescriptive easement may be found if the person claiming the easement has acted in a manner “hostile and under a claim of right, actual, open, continuous, and exclusive.” Adverse possession may be maintained by “tacking,” when the current adverse possessor obtained the property through transfer or descent from a prior adverse possessor. The state argued that the trial court erred by granting an easement to the Andersons when Minnesota law encouraged landowners to permit public recreation on their land and purports to protect landowners from claims arising from such recreational use. The trial court was not unsympathetic to the argument, but because the recreational-use statute was passed in 1994, it applied only to causes of action arising on or after that time.
The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that while Minnesota encouraged public use of lands and waters for beneficial recreational purposes since 1961, only in 1994 was the law changed to prohibit the creation of adverse easements on private recreational lands. The Andersons had used the property and trails beginning in the 1930s, and use continued uninterrupted until 2002, when the DNR installed signs, and 2003, when the DNR erected a fence across a trail. The evidence showed that the Andersons’ adverse use of the trails extended for 15 or more years before the state’s ownership of the land.
The state argued, however, that the trial court erred by concluding that the Andersons had established a prescriptive easement because, since recreational use is encouraged by Minnesota law, the element of hostility could not be shown. What’s more, the state contended, the district court erred by determining that respondents’ adverse use of the WMA was visible.
The Court held there was ample evidence that the Andersons developed and used the trails, and it has long been recognized in Minnesota that a person who purchases land with the knowledge or with actual, constructive, or implied notice that it is burdened with an easement in favor of other property ordinarily takes the estate subject to the easement. There is no dispute that there were existing trails when the state bought the land in 1989. That fact was sufficient to sustain the trial court’s findings.
A dissenting judge said the Andersons’ use of the land was permitted by statute and state policy, and was neither inconsistent with the rights of the property owners and was not hostile. Because the Andersons’ use was not hostile, he argued, he reasoned, they have not obtained a prescriptive easement. As we all know, the dissenting opinion is the losing jurist’s lament (if not whine), and – while sometimes interesting and often scathing – doesn’t really count.
– Tom Root