Iowa Supreme Court Affirms Permissive Use of Road Does not Result in Public Dedication
On June 24, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that allowing the public to use an easement does not establish a public dedication. A landowner granted a written access easement to his family members and invitees. Because there was clear evidence the landowner did not intend to dedicate the easement, the Court affirmed that the driveway was not for public use.
A married couple, Jeanine and Stanley Chartier, owned an assisted living facility next to Jeanine’s brother, Willard McNaughton. The Chartiers did not have governmental permission to construct a driveway from the main highway to the facility. However, McNaughton was able to receive approval for a special road on his land.
McNaughton entered into a written “private” easement with the Chartiers which allowed the Chartiers and the “residents, guests, and other invitees of the assisted living facility” the right to use a portion of the access road to access the assisted living facility. Soon after, the city paved the access road. The city asked McNaughton to dedicate the paved portion of the easement several times; however, McNaughton adamantly declined.
In 2018, the Chartiers found a potential buyer for their business, but then learned that the easement was never recorded. The Chartiers offered to pay McNaughton $15,000 in exchange for his written agreement that any successor could use the easement as well. The parties failed to come to an agreement and McNaughton filed this lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that the easement could not be assigned. The Chartiers counterclaimed, seeking injunctive relief and naming the city as a third-party defendant. The Chartiers asserted that the paved portion of the easement had been dedicated to the public. The city resisted and did not participate when the matter went to trial.
The district court found that McNaughton had allowed the public to use the concrete portion of the easement and, thus, had dedicated that portion of his land. Alternatively, the district court held that the easement was appurtenant and ran with land to the successive owners. McNaughton appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision on both issues. Although McNaughton did allow the public to use the easement, the court held this was insufficient to show that he intended to publicly dedicate the area. Additionally, the language of the agreement demonstrated that it was not appurtenant, but rather a “private easement.” The Supreme Court granted further review.
Intent to Dedicate
A dedication is an “uncompensated transfer of an interest in private property to the public.” 11A Eugene McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations § 33:2. To prove a public dedication occurred, the proponent must show “(1) intent to dedicate, (2) dedication, and (3) acceptance by the public or the party to whom the dedication is made.” Sons of Union Veterans of Civ. War, Dep’t of Iowa v. Griswold Am. Legion Post 508, 641 N.W.2d 729, 734 (Iowa 2002). The Court first considered whether there was clear evidence that McNaughton at any time intended to publicly dedicate the easement.
The Court found that the language of the agreement unmistakably proved that McNaughton did not intend to dedicate the easement. The agreement stated multiple times that the easement was exclusively for the Chartiers’ use. It also stated that the easement rights were not transferable without McNaughton’s written consent. At no point after the parties entered the agreement did McNaughton express interest in dedicating the easement. Each time the city asked McNaughton to dedicate the easement, he refused.
The Supreme Court found that the district court erroneously concluded that McNaughton allowing the public to use the private easement showed an intent to dedicate the easement. Permissive or limited use by the public is insufficient to show public dedication occurred, which is exactly what occurred here. Culver v. Converse, 224 N.W. 835, 836 (Iowa 1929); Sioux City v. Tott, 60 N.W.2d 510, 516 (Iowa 1953).
Acceptance of Dedication
The Court also determined that there was neither an express nor implied acceptance of the easement by the public. The city expressly denied it was a necessary party to the dispute in district court and at trial claimed it wasn’t “really concerned about how the [c]ourt decide[d] the matter.” Additionally, the court found that there was insufficient evidence of implied acceptance. The Court noted that the public cannot accept if there is no offer. Here, the Court previously determined McNaughton did not have the intent to dedicate the easement. Therefore, he did not offer it. Therefore, there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that a public dedication occurred.
Justice McDermott filed a dissenting opinion in which Chief Justice Christensen joined. An implied intent to dedicate “need not have actually existed in the mind of the land owner.” 11A Eugene McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations § 33:37. Justice McDermott argued that McNaughton’s actions amounted to an implied dedication of the easement and that the public had accepted the dedication even if a governmental body had not expressly done so.
McNaughton believed the public had a right to use the easement and even believed that he could be penalized if he blocked the road. The dissent noted that McNaughton never objected to the city paving or maintaining the road as if it was a public street. This led the dissent to conclude that McNaughton had granted an implied easement to the public.
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