Despite Property Owner’s Stony Resolve, a Driveway Easement Remains

February 3, 2012 | Erika Eckley

A property owner asked the court to agree that a fifteen-foot “driveway easement” across his lot no longer existed based on three possible theories:  (1) the original purpose for granting the easement had been extinguished; (2) the easement had been abandoned; and (3) the easement was removed by mutual agreement of the property owners. However, the trial court found that the property owner did not prove any of his theories and upheld the continued validity of the easement. On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the easement on the property had not been vacated. 

The property in this case was located in a housing subdivision in Bettendorf. The plaintiff owned two lots in the subdivision. On the north line of one of the plaintiff’s lots was an easement covering a fifteen foot strip of land. The easement was established in 1965 when the subdivision’s original plat was created. It provided access to the adjacent lot, which remained unimproved and bordered another lot in which a pond had been established that subdivision residents commonly used for recreation. The plaintiff purchased his lot in 1982 with the easement in place. 

A bank owned the unimproved lot and the pond until the lots were sold in 2008 to a limited liability company whose four members also owned homes in the subdivision. In 2006, the plaintiff sought and received a resolution from the homeowners association that the easement was vacated and the plaintiff’s property was released. The bank, which owned the unimproved lot benefitting from the easement, never received notice that the easement would be discussed or a resolution approved by the homeowners association. After the resolution was passed, the plaintiff built a stone garden across the eastern end fifteen-foot strip, which limited access to the easement. 

In 2009, the plaintiff filed a petition asking the court to determine the boundary on the west side of his property. The company that owned the undeveloped lot to the west of the plaintiff’s property filed a counterclaim asking the court to decide their right to use the easement on the plaintiff’s property. The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s theories, held that the easement still existed and ordered the plaintiff to remove the rock garden obstructing access and use of the easement.
To prove that the purpose for the easement had been extinguished, the plaintiff argued that the easement was originally established to provide vehicle access to a road on the lot that was now a pond. The court disagreed, finding instead that the easement had been established to provide access, either by vehicle or on foot, to the lot on which the pond now existed. Access to this parcel was still needed, so this purpose still existed. 

The easement, according to the plaintiff, was created so a driveway could be built. The fact that no driveway had been built combined with the homeowners association resolution releasing the easement, established that the easement has been abandoned. In order to prove abandonment, however, the plaintiff was required to show actual acts of relinquishment and intent to abandon the easement by the property owner or nonuse of the easement for more than ten years. The court found no proof of intent to abandon the easement. Also, residents of the subdivision had been traversing the easement by foot during the past ten years, so the evidence showed the easement being used during the past ten years.

Finally, the plaintiff claimed that the easement had been mutually released when the homeowners association passed its resolution vacating the easement. The court disagreed and held that the association did not own the property and did not notify the bank, the actual landowner before passing the resolution, so there was no proof of a mutual agreement to release the easement.

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court on all points. The easement had been used by residents to access the subdivision’s pond and the homeowners association did not have the ability to vacate the easement without notifying the owner of the land benefited by the easement. Despite the plaintiff’s efforts to eliminate the easement and restrict access across his property, the easement originally established will continue to be used. Bruns v. Verdes Northwest, L.L.C., No. 1-930/11-0207, 2012 WL 299537 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2012).