Iowa Court of Appeals Declares Roadway Public and Orders Defendant to Stop Harassing Neighbor

May 7, 2014 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Slycord v. Martin, No. 13-1192, 2014 Iowa App. LEXIS 493 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2014)

Overview

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently affirmed a district court’s judgment declaring a disputed roadway to be public and enjoining the defendant from harassing his neighbor concerning her use of the road in the future.

Facts

The dispute arose in 2010 when the plaintiff purchased Lots 5 and 6, which adjoined the defendants’ property.   The defendants, Garret and Martin, had lived together on Lot 10 for 25 years at the time of trial. Garrett had purchased Lot 10, as well as Lot 1 (in Section 14), in 1982. In 2010, she transferred ownership of Lot 1 to Martin, as the trustee of the MMM Trust. Martin claimed an exclusive right to use the 15-foot road separating Lots 5 and 6 from Lot 10. This road was the only road or driveway by which plaintiff could access her lots.

In 1948, Garret’s predecessors in interest to Lot 1 (the Petersons) had sued the plaintiff’s predecessors in interest to Lots 5 and 6 (the Holders) after the Holders told the Petersons that they were going to erect a fence to prevent them from using the road. The Holders did not respond, and the court entered a default judgment, stating that the Petersons “by reason of the open, notorious, continued used of said driveway lane for over forty years are entitled to have the continued future use thereof for travel, quieted and established in the Petersons and all future owners.”

Shortly after the plaintiff purchased her property, Martin began interfering with her use of the road. He used his tractor to prevent a serviceman that had used the road to access the plaintiff’s property from leaving until the county sheriff arrived, and he blocked other visitors to the plaintiff’s home. He made changes to the road, including cutting a trench in the back part of the road, leaving the plaintiff unable to access her back property and dumping excessive gravel on the road, causing the road to rise a foot and leaving gravel in the plaintiff’s yard.

Lower Court Ruling

The plaintiff filed an action against the defendants, seeking a declaratory judgment as to the parties’ rights to use the road and Martin’s right to “maintain” the road. At trial, the defendants alleged that the Holders (and thus the plaintiff) had lost any right to use the road by virtue of the 1948 court ruling. They alleged that the Petersons had established title to the property by adverse possession and that Martin thus owned the road exclusively. Martin alleged that the road was intended as an exclusive driveway for his Lot 1. The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that the road was public, not privately owned or controlled by Martin, and that Martin had harassed and damaged the plaintiff.  The district court ordered Martin to fix the road, remove gravel from the plaintiff’s yard, and stop harassing the plaintiff regarding her use of the road.

Iowa Court of Appeals Decision

The defendants appealed, and the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed. The court ruled that the district court did not err in determining that Martin did not own the road. The court found that the 1948 order granted the Petersons and their successors only a prescriptive easement which, “like adverse possession,” is created when a person” uses another’s land under a claim of right or color of title, openly, notoriously, continuously, and hostilely for ten years or more.” Thus, Martin possessed only a right to legally use the road, not title to the road. The 1948 order also made clear that the Holders had not abandoned their right to use the road.  Thus, the plaintiff retained the easement interest in the road that her predecessors enjoyed.

The court found that the district court had not erred in requiring Martin to repair the road because he had purposely damaged the road and interfered with the plaintiff’s use of the road. In the future, the court stated, actual maintenance to the road could be shared equally by the parties.  The court advised in closing, “When in doubt, it is always better to take the high road and talk to your neighbor about proposed repairs and each person’s contribution to costs.”

It is probably also better not to block your neighbor’s repairman in with your tractor.