DO YOU KNOW THE MUFFIN MAN?
No, it wasn’t the Muffin Man, but the Clarks. They had assembled several parcels of land into a pretty nice cattle spread and homestead along the Jefferson River. And they had always used Byrum Lane. The road passed across their land, across the Dwyer Place and ultimately back to some more of their land and up to their house.
Back in the 1960s, the land around the Byrums’ cow palace had been subdivided in smaller lots for homes, almost none of which (other than the Clarks’ place) had been built. Meanwhile, all the landowners and their guests used Byrum Lane, and had for a long while. The County had even maintained the road sporadically.
But then came the legal drama. When the Clarks completed their new home, the Dwyers (or maybe the Dwyers’ descendants, who were the parties to the case), told the Clarks they couldn’t use the road anymore. The Clarks sued, arguing they had a prescriptive easement. A prescriptive easement is much like adverse possession (the doctrine that lets an especially brazen and long-term trespasser gain title to your land). However, unlike adverse possession, the prescriptive easement isn’t about ownership: rather, it’s about the right to use someone else’s property. If you have used someone else’s driveway openly, notoriously, adversely, continuously and without interruption for the period of time required by statute, an easement in your favor has been created just by force of your chutzpah.
In this case, the Clarks had used Byrum Lane without permission for years, as had their predecessors, and as had just about everyone else. The County had even maintained it for a while, seemingly uncertain whether it was a public right-of-way or not. The specific issue before the Supreme Court was whether the prescriptive easement extended to the Clarks’ use of Byrum Lane to reach a house on a parcel that didn’t exist when the prescriptive easement came into being. The Court said they could. The land had been subdivided before the prescriptive easement came into being, so the Dwyers had reason to think that if an easement had come into being prescriptively, it could be used to reach one of the homes which were contemplated on the vacant lots.
Clark v. Heirs and Devisees of Dwyer, 339 Mont. 197, 170 P.3d 927 (Mont. Supreme Court, 2007). The Clarks owned real estate, which they had acquired as several tracts over a seven-year period beginning in 1979. The Dwyers owned real property that bordered a piece of the Clark land with railroad tracks acting as a visible property line. The Dwyer property was bordered on the east by a county road named “Waterloo Road” and on the north by a roadway known as “Byrum Lane.”
Byrum Lane extended from Waterloo Road, across the Dwyer property, and across the northern border of the Clarks’ property – which lay between the Dwyer land and property owned by George and Virginia Byrum – before continuing onto the Byrums’ property lying to the southwest of the Clarks’ land. In essence, Byrum Lane dissects the Clarks’ land.
The Byrums used Byrum Lane by virtue of two recorded easements in their favor. The portion of Byrum Lane crossing the Clarks’ land is a recorded 60-foot wide roadway and utility easement. The portion of Byrum Lane traveling from Waterloo Road over the Dwyer property is a road and utility easement for a 30-foot wide roadway. This portion of Byrum Lane crosses the Dwyer property from Waterloo Road for a distance of about 834 feet before reaching the Clarks’ property.
Historically, Byrum Lane was used by the Clarks and their predecessors to access the tracts the Clarks had purchased. During the period of 1979 to 1986, Byrum Lane served as the Clarks’ sole access to their house. From the period of 1986 to 1991 the Clarks used Byrum Lane to feed livestock, load hay, and move equipment. Later, after they built a new house in 1988 on one of their tracts that previously had no residence, the Clarks continuously used Byrum Lane (although they also had access to their house by way of a roadway from Waterloo Road.)
The Clarks claimed a prescriptive easement along Byrum Lane, allowing them access over the Dwyer property to their land. Following trial, the court found that Byrum Lane had been used by the public and Clarks’ predecessors since the early 1900s, had been maintained by the county road department on occasion, was generally known as a public road which the public had a right to use long before the Dwyers purchased their property, and had been used without permission by the Clarks and Byrums (as well as others) since the time the Dwyers bought their land. The Dwyers and Byrums argued that the Clarks didn’t have the right to use the road to reach a residence on a tract that hadn’t had one when the prescriptive easement came into existence.
The trial court disagreed, saying that all owners of the road were put on notice in the 1960s that the road was intended to service residences when the subdivision of the property into various tracts took place. The court concluded that the Clarks established the elements of a prescriptive easement, an open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous, and uninterrupted use of the roadway for at least five years. The Dwyers appealed.
Held: The Supreme Court upheld the trial judge. The Dwyers complained that the trial court had no business making findings about the public-use nature of the road. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that although the action involved an alleged private easement, the public-use findings served only to give credibility to the private-easement claim and had no other legal effect.
To establish a private prescriptive easement, the Court said, a party must show open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous, and uninterrupted use of the easement claimed for the full statutory period of five years required by Montana Code § 70-19-404. An open and notorious use is a distinct and positive assertion of a right that is hostile to the rights of the owner and brought to the attention of the owner. Once a prescriptive easement is established, the owners of the easement are limited to the use and frequency of use that was established during the prescriptive period. If an easement is not specifically defined, it is considered to be of a size that is reasonably necessary and convenient for the purpose for which it was created, and not more. And once established, a prescriptive easement “runs with the land,” which means that the benefit or burden passes automatically to successors.
Applying these principles, the Supreme Court found that the Clarks had a prescriptive easement to use Byrum Lane. The right to use the private prescriptive roadway easement provided subdivision access extended to the Clarks’ and other tracts, lands that never had residences. The tracts were subdivided before the prescriptive easement came into being, the Court said, and the act of subdividing the tracts of land put all landowners on notice that the disputed roadway was intended to service all residences. Furthermore, the disputed roadway had been used to service parcels for several decades.
– Tom Root