Some easements will contain express language that delineates the respective rights of the grantor and grantee to make use of the easement. Other times, even absent express language, a grantor can be prevented from using an easement if such use would unreasonably interfere with the rights of the easement holder. For further discussion of an example when express easement language is not needed to limit the use of the easement by the grantor, check out our prior post entitled “Utilities Have the Right to Remove Trees Within an Easement.”
However, what happens when the language is ambiguous? The unpublished case of 18131 Ventura Blvd, LLC v. 5223 Lindley, LLC (2021) No. B304458, analyzed what the easement language of “exclusive perpetual easement” means as to the respective rights of the grantor and grantee.
In this case, there are two adjacent commercial parcels – the Ventura property and the Lindley property. In 1989, the Lindley property granted an “exclusive perpetual easement” to the Ventura property across three feet of the Lindley property for Ventura’s use of various utility lines. [Note: The Ventura utilities had already been installed, but it wasn’t until 1989 that an easement was actually conveyed.] Fast forward to 2014 when the Ventura property was being redeveloped, the Ventura owner discovered that there were Lindley utilities also within the easement and that they were preventing the Ventura property from installing a certain type of new drainage system.
Ventura argued that the easement language of “exclusive” served to exclude not only third parties, but use of the easement by the grantor (Lindley) as well. The trial court disagreed and determined that the use of “exclusive” in this context did not mean to exclude the Grantor from also making use of the easement for utilities.
Court of Appeal
On appeal, there were two main issues – (1) what “exclusive” meant in this context and (2) whether Lindley’s use would unreasonably interfere with Ventura’s use of the easement.
First, the court reiterated that the general rule is that despite granting an easement, the owner of the servient tenement may make any use of the land that does not unreasonably interfere with the easement. Here, the evidence showed that Lindley had installed its utilities in 1988 (above the preexisting Ventura utilities), which was before the 1989 easement was actually granted. Thus, the court concluded it did not make sense for “exclusive” to prevent Lindley from using the easement for its own utilities when they had in fact been installed before Lindley granted Ventura the legal rights under the easement. Therefore, “exclusive” in this context only means the exclusion of third parties.
Second, the viability of Lindley’s use of the easement turns on whether or not such use unreasonably interferes with Ventura’s use. The facts showed that while the easement language defined the width of the easement as three feet, it did not define at what depth the Ventura utilities would be placed or the number of permissible utilities. The court found that Ventura was not entitled to disrupt Lindley’s permitted use of the easement after more than 20 years simply because Ventura wanted to change the nature of its drainage utilities. Further, there was still space in the easement for Ventura to install new drainage lines and that is all the easement granted.
Therefore, Lindley’s concurrent use of the easement was permissible and it did not unreasonably interfere with Ventura’s rights to the easement.
This case serves as a reminder that the specific easement language matters when it comes to balancing the rights to use the easement between the Grantor and the Grantee. Grantors should be mindful that any use of the easement must confirm to the terms of the easement and not otherwise unreasonably interfere with the rights of the Grantee. Grantees should also be cognizant of potential future needs and the necessity of specific language when negotiating the terms of an easement.