A new case from the Texarkana Court of Appeals could prove extremely useful for landowners dealing with old, blanket easement agreements on their property. In Sothwestern Electric Power Company v. Lynch, the court held that the general easement at issue, which was silent as to width, limited the allowable width of the easement to 30 feet, which was the width historically used by the transmission line company. [Read full opinion here.]
Three landowners in Bowie County own land burdened by a utility easement held by Southwestern Electric Power Company (“Company”). The easements were grated to the Company in 1949 by the landowners predecessors in title. Each of the easement documents are identical and provide as follows:
“[A]n easement or right-of-way [is granted to Southwestern Gas & Electric Company] for an electric transmission and distributing line, consisting of variable numbers of wires, and all necessary or desirable appurtenances (including towers or poles made of wood, metal or other materials, telephone and telegraph wires, props and guys), at or near the location and along the general course now located and staked out by the said Company over, across and upon the following described lands . . . .Together with the right of ingress and egress over my (our) adjacent lands to or from said right-of-way for the purpose of constructing, reconstructing, inspecting, patrolling, hanging new wires on, maintaining and removing said line and appurtenances . . . .”
None of the conveyance documents contained any metes and bounds description of the easement. None of the documents specified a width of the easement. The Company has continually used the easement to construct, service, and maintain electric transmission lines along the same general paths on which the lines were constructed in 1949. Historically, the company had utilized thirty feet total, 15 feet on each side of the center of the transmission line.
In 2014, the Company began to rebuild and modernize the transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with steel. When this began, the Company sent landowners along the line a letter informing them of the planned modernization of the line and offering each of them $1,000 in exchange for supplementing the existing easement and to revise and clarify the width and boundaries of the 1949 easements. Although the original conveyances were silent as to width, the supplemental agreement would have expressly included a width of 100′.
The plaintiff landowners refused to sign the supplemental agreements, but the Company entered their property and upgraded regardless, arguing they were entitled to do so under the 1949 deeds. Landowners testified that the modified line with the steel poles did not take up additional room beyond the 30′ that had been utilized by the Company’s prior line.
The landowners filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment that the Company’s easement was limited to a width of 30 feet. It was not, the plaintiffs argued, a blanket easement allowing the Company unlimited access to the landowners’ property. The landowners based their argument of a 30′ limitation on the fact that was the width that the Company had used over the years to construct and maintain the power lines. The Company argued that the 1949 deeds granted a general easement that was not so limited in width. A general easement, the company argued, gives them “the right to use as much as we reasonably determine each time we need to use the easement.”
The trial court judge sided with the landowners, limiting the Company’s use of the easement to 30′ as that was the width of the prior use. The Company appealed.
The court sided with the landowners in this case, affirming the trial judge.
There is a justiciable controversy.
Courts can only rule on cases that are justiciable, which requires that, among other things, claims be “ripe.” A claim is ripe if “at the time a lawsuit is filed, the facts are sufficiently developed so that an injury has occurred or is likely to occur, rather than being contingent or remote.” Conversely, a case is not ripe and a court may not rule if a determination of whether the plaintiff suffered injury depends on hypothetical facts or events that have not yet occurred.
The Company argued this case was not ripe as the landowners did not allege any action or proposed action by the Company that prevented them from utilizing their own property. The landowners argued that their claims are ripe because, due to the Company’s position that their easement is unlimited, the Company could file trespass claims at anytime, and that due to the uncertainty under the deeds created by the Company’s position, the landowners are effectively being denied the full use of their property.
The court sided with the landowners, finding that there was a justiciable controversy. Because the Company could choose to pursue enforcement of its interpretation of the deeds at any time, and because a larger easement width could impact the landowner’s property usage, it was ripe for decision.
The easements are limited to 30 feet.
The Company argued that there was no evidence to support the landowners’ claim that the easements were limited to 30 feet, and the only such evidence to support that claim is the fact that historically that is what was actually used, which is extrinsic and inadmissible.
The scope of an easement holder’s rights is determined by the express terms of the easement document. A general grant or reservation of an easement “in general terms implies a grant of unlimited reasonable use such as is reasonably necessary and convenient and as little burdensome as possible to the servient owner.” Further, the court stated, “it is a well settled rule that where the grant does not state the width of the right-of-way created, the grantee [the Company] is entitled to a suitable and convenient way sufficient to afford ingress and egress to the owner of the dominant estate [the Company].”
Here, because the 1949 deeds granted a general easement but did not specify the width thereof, the Company “was entitled to use as much of the [landowner’s] property as is reasonably necessary, while being as little of a burden as possible.” The court held that this constituted 30′. The court rejected other prior decisions relied upon by the Company in which the easement agreements allowed additional lines to be laid in the future and a case where the easement agreement specifically allowed for “relocation” of the line. Instead, the court said that “under a general easement, once the location of the easement is selected by the grantee, its rights then become fixed and certain.” Thus, once the Company constructed and maintained its transmission lines, its rights became fixed and certain.
The Company has filed a motion for rehearing and could potentially appeal the court’s decision. We will keep you posted on further developments.
Old, blanket easements can be extremely confusing for new landowners to deal with. This case offers a few key reminders.
First, landowners should carefully read, review, and seek legal assistance when negotiating any sort of easement agreement. By including a limitation on width in the original 1949 agreements, the parties could have avoided this dispute all together.
Second, the starting point for any easement analysis is the language of the deed document itself. The language in this case was found to reasonably limit the width to what was previously used. However, in other cases, such as where an easement expressly allowed additional lines to be laid, or where an easement allowed for “relocation” of the pipeline, this same type of limitation would not apply. Landowners must review the precise language of their deed in order to determine what limitations may apply.
Third, when purchasing property, landowners should take time to review title insurance and investigate any encumbrances or easements on the property to determine the potential impact such encumbrances could have on their future property use and value.