In 1941, Rose Miller Parks conveyed a portion of her property to Edith Ford.  The grant deed reserved an easement in favor of Ms. Parks and her successors, assigns, and heirs.  This easement permitted "the right of ingress and egress for public road purposes over, along and across" forty feet of land on the conveyed property.  Ms. Ford's property was eventually conveyed to Arnold and Valerie Schmidt.  The remaining Parks property changed ownership and, in approximately 2004, was being developed into three condominium buildings called Aragon. 

Barratt American Incorporated (Barratt) developed the Aragon project and received project financing through Bank of America.  Barratt completed two of the three planned condominium buildings and constructed features on, under, and around the reserved easement area.  Barratt graded and paved the easement area for a private roadway, permitting access from the main street to an Aragon parking garage, and erected a locked gate at the end of that roadway.  Barratt also placed or improved sewer pipes and storm drains in the easement area.  Barratt conveyed the Aragon property to the Aragon Home Owners Association (Aragon HOA), but defaulted on its credit agreement with Bank of America before completing the project. 

The Schmidts filed a lawsuit against Bank of America, Aragon HOA, and others, alleging trespass, nuisance, and injunctive and declaratory relief.  They claimed that construction of the Aragon project violated the easement rights and restrictions by improperly installing subsurface infrastructure and constructing and maintaining a driveway and garage entryway along the easement.  The lawsuit sought damages and demanded the removal of the structures and improvements on the easement.  The trial court granted summary judgment motions in favor of Aragon HOA and Bank of America on the grounds that the structures and improvements did not violate Ms. Parks' 1941 reserved easement.  The trial court agreed with Aragon HOA and Bank of America and the Schmidts appealed.

On appeal, Bank of America and Aragon HOA claimed that the scope of the reserved easement covers the structures and improvements.  The easement's phrase "for public road purposes" created a public right-of-way over the reserved easement, permitting Bank of America and Argon HOA to build normal development infrastructures on the easement.  The Schmidts countered by arguing the easement is a private roadway easement and therefore only private parties may use the surface of the easement for roadway purposes.  The easement does not create a public right-of-way as the reserved easement benefits only the Aragon parcel and not the public at large. 

The Court of Appeal agreed with the Schmidts, finding the reserved easement did not transform the easement into a public right-of-way.  An easement is a restricted right to a specific, limited, and definable use or activity upon another's property, which must be less than the right of ownership.  The scope of an easement is determined by its language.  Ms. Parks' 1941 easement clearly limited use to ingress and egress "over, along and across" the portion of the Schmidt parcel.  The easement did not convey a right to use the subsurface areas of the easement.  Additionally, the phrase "for public road purposes" reflected the limitation of the ingress and egress, meaning the easement's permitted use is to reach a public road.  A "public way" may be used by every citizen.  Here, however, this reserved easement was between two private parties.  The mere inclusion of the phrase "for public road purposes" does not convert an otherwise private easement into a public way granting the public at large the right to use the easement.

Note:

Entities should carefully review the language of any grant deed or easement agreement to ensure they fully understand and agree with the terms of a reserved easement.

Schmidt v. Bank of America (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 1489 [168 Cal.Rptr.3d 240].