Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Interfering (Or Not) With an Easement: The Supreme Court of Virginia's Decision in Piney Meeting House Investments, Inc. v. Hart

When a property owner conveys an easement, he or she gives the easement-holder the right to use the property.

The property that is subjected to the easement is called the servient tenement: it "serves" the easement-holder. 


Notwithstanding the legalistic terminology -- and even though Halloween is fast-approaching -- don't let easements scare you. They are more common than you'd think, and they usually "work". In Albemarle and the surrounding counties, many properties are subject to access easements: a family has the legal right to cross their neighbor's property, via a driveway from the public road, even though all or a portion of the driveway is not actually located on the family's property. 

Most of the time, the easement is used without problems arising from either side.


Easements can be created in several ways, and they need not be in writing.  For instance, continuous and adverse use of another person's property can give rise to a prescriptive easement (for a discussion of prescriptive easements, see our post about Hafner v. Hansen, here).

Usually, however, easements are created by a written document that is recorded in the Clerk's Office, in order to put the world on notice of the parties' rights and obligations related to the property.


In Piney Meeting House Investments, Inc. v. Hart (June 7, 2012), the Supreme Court of Virginia examined the limits to which the owner of the servient tenement can interfere with the rights of the easement holder.  You can read Justice Mims's opinion here.

A sunrise on Lake Anna

Mr. and Mrs. Hart owned a parcel on Lake Anna. Their property included an access easement across land owned by Piney Meeting House.

According to the Harts, Piney Meeting House obstructed the easement by placing and/or installing a number of items within the easement: an electric box, a generator, a well, a propane tank, trees and mulch.  The crux of the opinion focuses on two of these items: the well and the propane tank.

A commissioner in chancery appointed by the Spotsylvania County Circuit Court determined (1) that the below-ground portion of the well did not unreasonably interfere with the Harts' use of the easement (so long as Piney Meeting House moved the above-ground portion of the well) and (2) that Piney Meeting House should be given an opportunity to satisfy the court that the propane tank's ground-level cap was strong enough to withstand automobile traffic.

The Circuit Court judge, however, rejected the commissioner's recommendations regarding the well and propane tank, and instead enjoined Piney Meeting House "from placing anything within the easement [above-ground or below-ground] which would in any way affect the Harts' use of the entire width of the easement." (emphasis added)

The Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court -- thus handing a victory to servient tenement owners throughout the Commonwealth.

In his opinion, Justice Mims states that the Circuit Court took a too-restrictive reading of the limits on the servient tenement's use of the easement property:
"Our cases make clear that the owner of a servient estate may still make reasonable use of land burdened by defined width ... An encroachment that does not narrow the width of an easement or unreasonably interfere with its use is not a material encroachment."
Justice Mims proceeds to state that the question of "unreasonable interference" is best left to a fact-finder (rather than a judge). 

Typically a jury would serve as the fact-finder, however the Spotsylvania Circuit Court had delegated the fact-finding role to the commissioner-in-chancery.

The commissioner-in-chancery had examined the evidence and determined that the well and propane tank would not unreasonably interfere with the Harts' use of the easement.  Piney stands for the proposition that once that determination was made, it should only have been disregarded by the judge in the face of [clear] contradictory evidence.

The take-away from Piney is that the limits to which a servient tenement owner can interfere with an easement are highly dependent on the facts and circumstances of the particular easement.  That said, easement owners should not make too broad a claim about their servient neighbor's inability to use the easement property, particularly if the neighbor can produce evidence that the alleged impediment does not completely obstruct use of the easement.
Now it's time to take a break from the law books and choose the perfect pumpkin!