If an express easement does not specifically identify the area of use, then the scope of permitted use may be limited to the historical use of the easement. (Rye v. Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Company, Inc., 2013 WL 6578784 (Third Dist., December 16, 2013) (“Rye”).

The holding in Rye affirms an important rule of easement law in California, though most of the cases addressing this rule date back 50-100 years. Simply because an express easement exists over a general area does not automatically permit the easement owner to use the entire area. Ultimately, the scope of an easement’s use will depend upon the language in the grant of easement, the intent of the parties, and the historical use of the easement (which may date back decades).

In Rye, the defendant owned an easement over “a portion” of Parcel One, which was owned in fee title by the plaintiff. The defendant used the easement for its garbage trucks and for storage of its garbage bins.

The express easement was contained in a 1981 grant deed that reserved: “[a]n easement for ingress, egress, parking, storage, utilities over a portion of Parcel One. . .” (emphasis added.)

Parcel One consisted of a paved area and an unpaved area. For years, the defendant used the paved area of Parcel One and a small portion of the unpaved area. The trial court held that the defendant’s easement rights were limited by this historical use to the paved area and ten (10) feet of the unpaved area.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. First, the court noted the trial court’s citation to 6 Miller & Starr, California Real Estate (3rd ed. 2006) §§ 15:54, 15:56 (“[w]hen the instrument of conveyance grants an easement in general terms, without specifying or limiting the extent of its use, the permissible use is determined in the first instance by the intention of the parties and the purposes of the grant. Once the easement has been used for a reasonable time, the extent of its use is established by the past use.” (emph. add.)])

Next, the court disagreed with defendant’s contention that the grant deed permitted use over the entire Parcel One. The express language in the grant deed reserved an easement over “a portion of Parcel One.” The court noted that while the area subject to the easement was specified (i.e., Parcel One), “the extent and location of the parking and storage on the easement is not.” The court therefore concluded that the precise area of use must be inferred from the intention of the parties. (Civ. Code, § 806.)

The court held that there was no clear indication of an intent to extend the parking and storage use to all of the area subject to the easement. The only admissible evidence of the parties’ intent was the past usage of the subject property and that usage was confined to the paved area and a portion of the unpaved area of the easement. Accordingly, the court concluded that the scope of the easement was limited by its historical use.

As a further justification for its holding, the court noted that if the defendant was permitted to use the entire area subject to the easement, the defendant could effectively prevent the plaintiffs from “effective use” of their property, thereby creating an exclusive easement. (citing to Gray v. McCormick (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1019, 1024.) This was an important observation by the court. Because the language in the grant deed did not infer an exclusive easement, allowing such use would “effectively” create an exclusive easement that would violate the easement language of the instrument and the intent of the parties.

In addition to ruling upon the extent of the easement, the court concluded that an old lease did not provide defendant the right to use property beyond that determined by the trial court because the defendant never intended to perform under the lease.

The Rye decision is consistent with prior California cases – many of them several decades old – that determine the extent and scope of a generally-deeded easement based upon the historical use of the easement area. (See e.g., 6 Miller & Starr, California Real Estate (3rd ed. 2006) §§ 15:54, 15:56.) These cases should be carefully considered by easement owners who seek to expand the scope of their easements in order to accommodate increased real property development or technology advances.

Although it did not fully address the issue, the Rye holding highlights the natural tension that exists between an easement owner who seek to increase the use of an easement and a servient tenement owner who seek to preserve the status quo. In some senses, easement law – derived from hundreds of years of English and American common law – may not be fully compatible with modern uses of land. Simply because a property is benefitted by an easement does not automatically permit expanded use of the burdened property. Moreover, easement rights must be carefully crafted before they are granted and before they are modified in order to avoid future conflicts.