Another Battle in the Iowa Border Wars Saga

October 22, 2007 | Erin Herbold

 

The Iowa courts have dealt with numerous cases in recent months dealing with boundaries and various rights to use property.  This case adds to the list and illustrates that land purchasers must always check for any encumbrances upon the land and understand what those encumbrances mean.  The issue is especially important when land is subdivided and sold off in lots. 
        
In 1996, a landowner subdivided a tract of land into five lots and recorded a consent and dedication agreement and plat map that described the development.  The plat agreement expressly reserved an easement for ingress and egress on the northern side of the subdivision, but the consent and dedication agreement did not mention the easement.  The easement was included in the plat map to ensure that the landowner had access to another tract of land she owned. 

In 2000, the landowner subdivided and platted a tract of land directly east of the first subdivision.  The easement was still set forth in the plat and the landowner also recorded covenants, mentioning the easement.  Subsequently, the northern lot of the first subdivision was sold to the plaintiffs, with the deed specifically saying that the land was subject to existing easements of record.  The question was whether the easement’s mention in the plat was enough to constitute an express easement, putting landowners on notice of an encumbrance on their land. 

The plaintiffs, before purchasing their tract, were able to examine an abstract and title opinion.  They were provided copies of the plat which mentioned the easement.  Shortly after the plaintiffs had purchased their tract, the defendant, constructed a driveway across the plaintiff’s property.  The driveway was built in the area covered by the easement.  That didn’t sit well with the plaintiffs, and they erected a fence to block further construction on their property.  In turn, the defendants destroyed the fence and kept constructing the driveway. 

The trial court determined that the recorded documents demonstrated the existence of an express easement.  But, the appellate court reversed, finding that the mention of the easement on both plat maps was insufficient to create an easement because they were created at different times.  However, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, stating that an easement created by a plat map is valid under Iowa law. 

The Court said that the proper test for determining the existence of an easement is to look at the intent of the parties.  Here, the plat map clearly stated an intention to create an easement for purposes of ingress and egress.  At all times, the purpose of the easement was to connect the second subdivision to the public highway. 

 

Also, the plaintiffs had “actual notice” of the easement, because they were provided the plat maps and were in possession of the abstract, indicating the recordation of the easement.  In Iowa, the standard to measure “actual notice” is whether a purchaser of land has knowledge of facts that a “prudent person” who investigated with ordinary diligence would discover.  Here, the court determined that the plaintiffs knew or should have known of the existence of the easement on their property.  Gray v. Osborn, 739 N.W.2d 855 (Iowa Sup. Ct. 2007).