A party interpreting an easement may need to look to historical use and conduct of the parties in addition to the language of the easement.  An exclusive easement explicitly grants the right to use the whole of the property.  If the language does not explicitly grant the right to use the entire easement area, a party with an easement may be restricted to its historical use of the property. 

Brian and Dawn Rye own a piece of property in Lake Tahoe.  Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Company, Inc. (Tahoe Truckee), owns a recorded easement over a parcel of the property for ingress, egress, parking, utilities, and storage.  Tahoe Truckee operates a garbage disposal business and uses a portion of the Parcel for its garbage trucks and storage of garbage bins. 

The Parcel consisted of an unpaved area and a paved area.  For about 8 years, the Ryes used the unpaved portion of the Parcel for its tree maintenance and wood supply service and Tahoe Truckee used the paved area daily and a small portion of the unpaved area of the Parcel. 

A dispute arose between the Ryes and Tahoe Truckee as to whether Tahoe Truckee may expand its parking and storage within the area of the easement Parcel beyond its historic use.  Tahoe Truckee also argued that it had a valid lease of the property and therefore could expand its use of the Parcel.  The trial court agreed with the Ryes and issued an order preventing Tahoe Truckee from expanding its use of the easement.

On appeal, Tahoe Truckee claimed it entered into a lease in 1982 with the Shaffers (former owners) for the property, including the Parcel.  The Shaffers sold the property to John Serpa, who in turn sold the property to the Ryes.  Mr. Serpa notified the Ryes of the claimed lease during the Ryes' purchase.  An employee of Tahoe Truckee signed the lease in 1982, but Tahoe Truckee never recorded it.  Tahoe Truckee could not locate a fully executed complete copy of the lease, so it arranged to have Shaffer execute the lease 22 years later.  Neither the Shaffers nor Tahoe Truckee had invoked the lease for 22 years. 

Tahoe Truckee never took possession of the leased area other than the part used for the easement.  In 2000, Tahoe Truckee sent a letter to the Ryes' company asserting only its easement interest.  Tahoe Truckee claimed that intent to abandon the lease cannot be drawn from the fact that the lease area was partially occupied or from the fact that the lease was not used for 22 years.  The Court found that Tahoe Truckee did not use the leased area under a claim of right as a tenant, but rather used the property under color of the easement.  Similarly, Tahoe Truckee paid no taxes on the property and remained indifferent as to what may become of the property for 22 years.  The Court found that Tahoe Truckee abandoned the lease.

Tahoe Truckee also sought to use the entire Parcel of the easement under its recorded easement.  The language of the easement generally provided for ingress, egress, parking, storage, and utilities over a portion of the Parcel.  The Court found this language to mean that ingress, egress, parking, storage, and utilities were permitted in the easement area, not that all of the Parcel area is subject to an easement.  It held that where the extent of an express easement is in question, the court will look to the precise area of use to infer the intention of the parties.  If Tahoe Truckee had a right to use the entire Parcel, then it could prevent the Ryes from using the Parcel, which would be an exclusive easement.  In order for the parties to create an exclusive easement, they must clearly indicate intent to extend use to all of the area subject to the easement.  The language of the easement did not express intent to use the entire area of the Parcel.  Therefore, Tahoe Truckee was limited to its historic use of the Parcel.

Rye v. Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Co. (2013) 222 Cal.App.4th 84 [165 Cal.Rptr.3d 590].