Iowa Court Says Driveway Easement Not for Public Use
On June 16, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals released an opinion regarding rights to use a driveway easement. The court clarified that without evidence of intent, there can be no public dedication. While the landowner in this case did allow some public use of an easement, this was insufficient to show that he intended to publicly dedicate it.
In 1999, Willard McNaughton entered into an easement agreement with his sister and brother-in-law, Jeanine and Stanley Chartier, at the time they purchased agricultural property bordering McNaughton to build an assisted living facility. This was a “private easement” agreement for ingress and egress and within the written agreement, the parties stated that the easement was “for the exclusive use and benefit of Chartier[s], and the residents, guests and other invitees of the assisted living facility located on Chartier[s’] property.”
The Chartiers began operating the assisted living facility, and the public accessed the facility by using the easement, which connected to a frontage road that led to the property. In 2003, the Chartiers attempted to publicly dedicate the frontage road to the city, which had built the road, but the city declined. The city accepted the Chartiers’ second public dedication offer in 2012. The city asked McNaughton to also dedicate his easement, but he declined.
In 2018, the Chartiers found a buyer interested in purchasing the property, but learned that the easement had never been recorded. Jeanine approached McNaughton and offered him $15,000 to sign a “Clarification of Easement.” The document stated that “any heirs or successors or assigns” retained the right to use the easement to access the highway. McNaughton refused the offer, but soon after recorded the original easement.
Aware of the Chartiers interest in selling, McNaughton told his sister that he had no issue with the sale. He proceeded, however, to make requests for significant concessions to secure his cooperation. For example, he asked for $100,000; a guarantee that Jeanine, as the named executor of their sister’s estate, give him the opportunity to purchase 50 acres of the sister’s farm; and he asked the Chartiers to purchase his property for $410,000. Believing the requests to be unreasonable, the Chartiers denied them. The Chartiers then sold the property. The conveyance did not include the easement.
McNaughton brought this lawsuit claiming he did not give anyone the right to assign use of the easement. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as damages. After trial, the court agreed that the easement was publicly dedicated to the city and that McNaughton no longer had rights to the easement appurtenant. McNaughton appealed.
In reversing the district court order, the Court of Appeals first considered whether McNaughton publicly dedicated the easement to the city. A dedication may be either express or implied. To prove an express dedication, the proponent must show:
(1) an appropriation of the land by the owner for a public use, evidenced by a positive act or declaration manifesting an intent to surrender the land to the public; (2) an actual parting with the use of the property to the public; and (3) an actual acceptance of the property by the public.
Marksbury v. State, 322 N.W.2d 281, 284 (Iowa 1982). Here, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower courts analysis that McNaughton fulfilled the first element and acted with intent to dedicate the land to the public. While McNaughton did consent to the city installing public improvement on the street and allowed the public to use the easement, this was insufficient to show that he publicly dedicated the area.
The court looked to the document granting the easement to determine the parties’ intent. The agreement stated that the easement was not “for the use and benefit of the general public,” but rather that it was a private easement “for the exclusive use and benefit of Chartier[s], and the residents, guests and other invitees of the assisted living facility located on Chartier[s’] property.” The court found that while McNaughton allowed the public to use the easement, this did not create a dedication. McNaughton also expressly denied the city’s request for public dedication at least three times. Based on this evidence, the court reversed the district court’s ruling that McNaughton publicly dedicated the easement.
The court next decided whether the easement was appurtenant to the neighboring property. Appurtenant easements run with the land and the servitude obligation transfers to the subsequent purchaser. Conversely, a servitude on a land may be personal and not transferable. The language in the easement instrument shows whether the parties intended the servitude to be personal or transferable.
Finding that specific contractual clauses trump general clauses, the district court had ruled that the “ingress and egress” language was more specific than the “private easement” language. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals found that the language limiting use of the easement to the Chartiers was more specific than the language allowing “ingress and egress” by the public.
Furthermore, the court determined that there was no easement by necessity. While the optimal way to access the Chartier’s property was through the driveway, over half of the 35’ wide driveway was on the Chartier’s property. Because the easement was not necessary to reach the neighboring property, the court concluded that it was a personal easement and was not transferable.
The Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation does not provide legal advice. Any information provided on this website is not intended to be a substitute for legal services from a competent professional. The Center's work is supported by fee-based seminars and generous private gifts. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material contained on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Iowa State University.