Farm Access Lane Raises Questions About Scope of Easement

August 26, 2009 | Erin Herbold


A simple farm access lane led to a major dispute amongst multiple parties in this case. At issue here are two parcels of land- a northern and a southern parcel.  Since 1888, the various owners of the southern parcel allowed the owners of the northern parcel access to the northern tract via the southern tract.  The northern parcel was later divided in half (hereinafter referred to as N1 and N2). The same family owned the southern parcel, until 1983, when it was sold to its current owners- parties to this suit.   When a developer approached the owner of N-1 with an offer to buy the 200-acre tract upon the condition that an application for rezoning for residential development was granted, the problems with access across the parcels began. 

The county, even though it never accepted the lane as a formal road, did maintain it in a limited way - installed culverts, graded and rocked the road. At some point, the road was even given a formal name when the county established a rural address system for the purpose of emergency services.    

Prior to the developer’s offer to purchase, the owner of parcel N-1 offered to buy the portion of the lane crossing N-2. The owner of N-2 consented. However, the developer who subsequently purchased N-1 did work on the lane to improve it.  The owner of N-1 also filed an application to have N-1 rezoned for the purposes of single-family residential development. At this point, the owners of the southern parcel objected to the rezoning application, stating that the lane could not be purchased or sold, because the only rights the owners of N-1 or N-2 had was the right of access to their property. The application was denied by the county board of supervisors. Thus, the developer offered to buy N-1 without conditions and the owner accepted the offer.  Following the transaction, the developer sought a court declaration that the lane was indeed a county road. The owners of the southern tract intervened to protect their rights and the trial court determined that the lane was merely a private road. The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. 

After that setback, the developer filed an action against the owners of the southern parcel, alleging that the southern owners had interfered with its contract and slandered their name. The developer also claimed an easement by prescription (by necessity) across N-2 and the southern parcel. In response, the southern owners filed a counterclaim, stating that the developers “abused the process” of the court system in this suit. The trial court dismissed most of the developer’s claims. 
The various parties appealed on various points, and the appellate courts determined that there was no abuse of process and that the appeals were timely filed.  

As for the scope of the easement for the lane, the evidence indicated that the intent of the lane was to merely allow access to farm property for the northern owners.  Thus, the proposed use of the lane for residential development impermissibly exceeded the original scope of the easement.  Schmitt v. Fischer, 770 N.W.2d 839 (Iowa Sup. Ct. 2009).