Contentious access road leads to court

Law of the Land

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 6, 2010

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Law of the Land

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News

The Binnses and the Stewarts owned neighboring lots on a cul-de-sac in Cedar County, Iowa. The Stewarts' lot contained and ran 10 feet beyond a paved, blacktop driveway that provides access to the subdivision's well. The Binnses' lot adjoins the Stewarts' just past the 10-foot overrun after the driveway.

The Stewarts bought their lot from Wilton Motors via a warranty deed that contained two easements, including one that reserved to neighbors Wilton Motors and its successors -- including the Binnses -- "access to the said portion of the driveway from the cul-de-sac to and including the No. 1 well easement."

Under the deed, easements and access "shall be permanent and shall run with the land."

Wilton Motors had sold the lot neighboring the Stewarts' to the Stranks, who built a home and a driveway on the lot, running the driveway across the 10-foot strip between the paved well access driveway and their property to access the road via the Stewarts' lot (rather than building a driveway directly from the Stranks' own lot to the cul-de-sac).

After purchasing the home from the Stranks, the Binnses sought to change the angle of the driveway, and the Stewarts protested, arguing that the easement allowed the Binnses to use the well access driveway on their property only to actually access the well.

The Binnses filed a lawsuit against the Stewarts, seeking the right to use the easement, monetary damages and attorney's fees.

At trial, the court found that the easement language in the deed was ambiguous, but should be interpreted as also allowing the Binnses to access the well access driveway from any portion of the 10-foot strip.

The trial court also deemed the Stewarts' position unreasonable, in that to disallow the Binnses to access their lot from the 10-foot strip would have limited the Binnses' access to the same access every other lot in the subdivision had -- essentially eliminating the need for the Binnses' lot to have an easement at all.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling, but differed with the lower court's rationale. The Iowa Court of Appeals found that the easement was unambiguous, given that the meaning of an easement is to be construed from the intentions of the easement's author.

Because the only reasonable reading of it would allow the Binnses to get to and from their lot and the well access driveway across the 10-foot strip, the Court of Appeals held, the authors clearly intended as much, rendering the easement's language unambiguous.

The appellate court rejected the Stewarts' argument that the lower court's ruling effectively expanded the scope of the Binnses' access under the easement.

Because nothing in the easement language in the deed limited the scope of the Binnses' access to the paved part of the well access path, the court accepted the Binnses' contention that they indeed had the right to "be present on the easement way at any point between the cul-de-sac up to and including the No. 1 well easement."

Accordingly, the trial court's ruling was affirmed.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

                                                   
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