A recent California case entitled Richardson v. Franc shows what a court might do when property owners don’t agree about what can be done on an easement.

In 1989, Mr. and Ms. P built their dream home on property hidden from the street.  The project included a 150-foot long driveway to the new house within an easement over their neighbor’s property. The easement was for access and utilities only.  The Ps wanted a natural, attractive entrance to their home, and so landscaped, irrigated, and lighted both sides of the new driveway.  For ten years, they maintained and improved the landscaping, at considerable expense.

The Ps sold the property in 2000 to Mr. R and Ms. D.  By that time the driveway was significantly enhanced by mature trees and other plants and lighting.   Over the years, the new owners added to the landscaping, and their gardeners spent up to half of their time on the driveway area.

In 2004, Mr. F bought the property over which the driveway ran.  He knew that his neighbors had installed and maintained the driveway landscaping, and admitted that the trees were “beautiful and…just all-around attractive.” But in 2010—six years after Mr. F bought his property and two decades after the landscaping and other improvements began—Mr. F complained.   Then, without any notice, he cut the irrigation and electrical lines, and disassembled the water valve pumps, and demanded that all of the landscaping and supporting systems be removed within 5 days.  Mr. R and Ms. D sued, claiming they had an “irrevocable license” and/or an “equitable easement” that allowed them to landscape, irrigate, and light the driveway.

While “easement” and “license” are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same.  An easement is an interest in real property; an equitable easement requires that he party claiming the easement must be without knowledge of the facts.  Mr. R and Ms. D knew the easement was for access and utilities only.  A license, on the other hand, is authority to do a certain act or acts on another’s land, i.e. a knowing act on someone else’s property, and may be express, or implied from the relationship of the parties and usage and custom.

The court said there was no equitable easement because Mr. R and Ms. D knew that the easement was for access only and did not include landscaping.  But the court used its equitable power to find an irrevocable license because they and the owners before them had expended substantial sums and labor for landscaping and other improvements without any objection for more than 20 years.

 The lesson?  If you have spent time and money on an easement, you may have a right to continue to do so even when the property owner complains. But if you are trying to protect your property from what the easement owner is doing, speak up as soon as you find out about it.

In any case, if you need help with your residential or commercial real property issues, give us a call at 916-388-5100.

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