Court Construes Easement Language

September 7, 2010 | Erin Herbold


In Iowa, an easement can be created either by express grant or reservation in a deed , by prescription, (3) by necessity or by implication. 

The parties owned adjoining lots in a residential sub-development. The plaintiff owned “Lot 20” and the defendant owned “Lot 19.” Both lots were located in a cul-de-sac area and the lots were subject to restrictive covenants. Lot 19 contained a private driveway which was the only access route to the subdivision’s water supply. Each owner in the subdivision owned an equal share of the well. When the defendant purchased Lot 19, in 2002, the warranty deed referenced two easements: an access easement for ingress and egress over a private driveway to the well and an easement for joint use of a driveway between Lot 19 and Lot 20 for its owners. The latter easement was in dispute in this case. 

The prior owner of Lot 20 built a house on the lot and placed a driveway between Lot 20 and Lot 19, in accordance with the express easement in the warranty deed. After the plaintiff purchased Lot 20, the plaintiff wanted to change the angle of the driveway.  The defendants   objected on the grounds that the change was outside the scope of the easement and that the entire easement was unreasonable and should be invalidated. The plaintiff sued. 

The trial court determined that the defendant’s position was unreasonable and that an express easement did exist, in this case. Thus, it was reasonable for the plaintiff to change the angle of the driveway. The court further opined that interpreting the easement so narrowly would negate the original intent of the easement which was to allow the owners of Lot 20 to access the blacktop service road from their property. The defendant also argued, at trial, that the easement was contravened the subdivision’s restrictive covenants regarding driveway placement. The trial court disagreed and concluded that the easement should be interpreted to allow the owners of Lot 20 direct access to the service road and well.  Blocking such access would negate the original intent of the easement. 

On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals was faced with the question of whether the trial court was correct in finding an express easement in this case. In other words, did the plaintiff’s proposed action exceed the scope of the easement? Under Iowa Code §557.3, all of the interests in real estate are passed from the grantor to the grantee, unless there is evidence of a contrary intent. Thus, the seller’s intent controls.  Here, the unambiguous language of the easement clearly granted the owner of Lot 20 shared access to the blacktop access road. Thus, i t was reasonable for the plaintiff to fix the angle of the driveway. 

As for the defendant’s argument that the trial court had no jurisdiction to hear the case, because the trial court considered the issue of restrictive covenants and all lot owners were not given the opportunity to be party to the suit in violation of their due process rights, the court held that the  had not been properly preserved for appeal. 

The case demonstrates the importance of accurately and narrowly defining the terms of an express easement in a written deed. Binns v. Stewart, No. 0-498/09-1571, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 903 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2010).