Hardly anything can sow discord among neighbors like an easement. Rarely described with much specificity or limited as to use by a detailed statement of purpose, easements cause problems for the holder. Or the grantor. Or often, both.
Where the easement is for the benefit of an adjacent property owner, we talk about the dominant estate – the property being benefitted – and the subservient estate, which is the property (or property owner) burdened by the easement.
In today’s case, the Dzingles bought a landlocked parcel of land about 60 years ago, and – in order to get back and forth from the road – bought an ingress easement from their neighbor. As the name implies, the easement, 25 feet wide and containing a “trail,” was intended to let the Dzingles get to and from their property. The property was held by the Marilyn Dzingle Trust, making her sort of the Dominatrix.
The mind is fallible, especially where the owner of the subservient estate (cool term, right?) sells the property to someone else, someone like Jim Platt. Jim knew what he was buying, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to spend a lot of time poring over deeds and those appurtenances, principal places of beginning, heirs and assigns, and all of the legal mumbo jumbo. He knew the Dzingles had a driveway going over his land, and who needs to know any more than that?
Jimbo, that’s who. When Dzingle cleared vegetation from either side of his drive (but within the 25’ limit of the easement), Platt objected that the Dzingles had diminished the value of his property. When Platt dropped a dumpster next to the driveway, crowding the use of the road, the Dzingles objected right back. Platt said, “Sure, I’m encroaching on the easement, but you still have enough room to get by.”
Well, enough was finally enough. When the Dzingles wanted to build a modular house, they needed 22 feet of clearance to haul the pieces in. Those of us who are good at math can figure that this should be fine, with 1½ feet of clearance on each side. Well, yeah, except for Jimmy’s dumpster, and he would not move it.
So the Dzingles took Jimmy Platt to school, this class being held in a courtroom, where Jimmy Platt finally figured out what all that fine print on the deed really meant.
Dzingle Trust v. Platt, Case No. 330614 (Ct.App. Mich., Feb. 14, 2017) 2017 Mich.App. LEXIS 227. The Dzingles had contentedly enjoyed their landlocked 59 acres for nigh on 50 years, partly because they had had the foresight to buy a 25-foot ingress easement from their neighbor. But time passed, and after Jim Platt bought the subservient estate, the parties began feuding about what rights the dominant estate had over the easement.
The deed granting the easement stated that it was “an easement for ingress and egress over a parcel of land 25 feet wide…” and referred to an attached survey for the exact location of the easement. The survey clearly identified the location of the easement and indicated that the “existing trail lies entirely within easement.”
The Dzingles placed gravel in the easement and cleared vegetation to use it for ingress and egress, and to improve his attached residential property with a water well and pond, which required large trucks to use the easement. They planned to build a modular home on the property, but delivering the modules would require 22 feet of clearance, just within the easement’s 25-foot width. Jim complained that the Dzingle’s vegetation cutting within the easement “unreasonably burdened my property and eliminated my use of the property.” For their part, the Dzingles complained that Jim Platt’s placement of a dumpster in the easement did not let them use the full 25 feet for ingress and egress. That may be so, Jim said, but it did not keep the Dzingles from ingress or egress.
The Dzingles sued for a declaratory judgment regarding their rights to remove obstructions to bring the modular home onto the property and asked the trial court to order Platt to remove his dumpster and any other obstacles from the easement. The trial court granted summary judgment to the Dzingles, holding they were entitled to the full 25-foot easement, and clearing brush from the easement was not an addition or improvement to the easement. The trial court rejected Jim Platt’s argument that the Dzingles’ proposed use of the easement would materially increase the burden on his estate, because their rights as the dominant estate to ingress and egress on the easement were paramount to Platt’s rights to wildlife and natural beauty. Finally, the trial court ruled that Platt must remove his dumpster from the easement because it was inconsistent with the Dzingles’ rights to ingress and egress.
Jim Platt appealed.
Held: The Dzingles’ rights extended to the whole 25 feet of the easement, and those rights included trimming vegetation so that the easement was usable for its intended purpose. It’s a rough lesson for a subservient estate holder to learn, but the dominant estate holder’s “rights are paramount to the rights of the soil owner to the extent stated in the easement grant.” The language of the instrument that granted the easement determines the scope of the easement holder’s rights.
In this case, the deed grants the Dzingles an easement for “ingress and egress.” The deed does not define ingress and egress, so the Court referred to a dictionary to determine the common meaning of the terms. “Ingress” is the “right or ability to enter; access,” and “egress” is defined as the “right or ability to leave; a way of exit.” Thus, an “ingress-and-egress easement” is an easement that grants the right to “use land to enter and leave another’s property.” Thus, the Court concluded, the deed expressly granted the Dzingles the rights to enter and leave their property, and the right to do so is paramount to Jim Platt’s rights in the same property.
What’s more, the easement gives the dominant estate “all such rights as are incident or necessary to the reasonable and proper enjoyment of the easement.” While the dominant estate’s exercise of the easement must place as little burden as possible on the subservient estate, still “the making of repairs and improvements necessary to the effective enjoyment of an easement… is incidental to and part of the easement.”
A repair maintains an easement in the condition it was in when the easement was made. Improvements, on the other hand, are alterations to an easement, and alterations are not permitted unless necessary for the effective use of the easement, provided they unreasonably burden the servient tenement. Here, the Dzingles offered evidence that clearing vegetation, placing gravel in the easement, and using the easement to allow large trucks to improve the Dzingle acreage, and were consistent with use of the easement since the easement was granted. Thus, the Court said, the Dzingles “presented evidence that removing vegetation and leveling would maintain the easement in the condition and uses it was in when the easement was granted. Platt presented no contrary evidence that clearing or leveling were outside the easement’s scope or changed the easement’s character.”
Finally, the Court said, any rights in the grant of an easement must be reasonably construed. The Dzingles have a right to reasonable ingress and egress, but they are not entitled to an unobstructed right-of-way. However, the Court said, the evidence showed that Jim’s dumpster intruded into the easement, and the Dzingles showed they needed at least 22 feet of the 25-foot easement for clearance to move the modular home pieces onto the property. Jim Platt may use the easement as long as his use does not interfere with the Dzingles’ right of ingress and egress. However, the Court said, because the Dzingles need the vast majority of the easement for ingress clearance and the dumpster intrudes into the easement, Jim Platt must move the dumpster.
– Tom Root