Landlocked Owner Seeking to Condemn Access Road Must Request Proper Route

February 3, 2015 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Finnegan v. Dickson, No. 14-0143, 2015 Iowa App. LEXIS 55 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2015).

Overview

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently determined that the owner of a landlocked parcel had a right to seek condemnation for an access road, but improperly sought to condemn a route that did not meet the statutory requirements.  The case is a good illustration of the statutory rules that must be followed for establishing the location of a right-of-way via condemnation.   

Iowa Statutory Provisions

Iowa Code §6A.4(2) grants owners of landlocked parcels the right to secure a right of way through adjacent private land by initiating a condemnation proceeding.  Iowa Code §6A.4(2)(b) provides:

The condemned public way shall be located on a division, subdivision, or “forty” line, or immediately adjacent thereto, and along the line which is the nearest feasible route to an existing public road, or along a route established for a period of ten years or more by an easement of record or by use and travel to and from the property by the owner and the general public.

Facts of the Case

In 1962, the owners initiating the condemnation proceeding had purchased a parcel of land that had no public road access. Through the years, the owners used the land only occasionally for the purposes of removing logs or hunting. Sometimes they accessed the parcel on the northwest side through a private road crossing the property of adjacent landowners. The private road, which was gated in 1991 by a new owner, connected to a public road. Other times, they accessed their property near the southwest corner by a using a farm path crossing the property owned by other adjacent landowners. This farm path also connected to the public road.

Trial Court Decision

When the landlocked owners were unsuccessful in seeking a voluntary easement for ingress and egress, they filed an action pursuant to Iowa Code § 6A.4(2) seeking to condemn a right of way crossing the property of the owners of the farm path. The route sought to be condemned, however, was not the farm path but a new route bisecting one of the neighbor’s farm fields. The landlocked owners presented a survey mapping the proposed access road and an affidavit from a construction engineer stating that the proposed route provided good access to the landlocked owners. The engineer stated that the road, which was flat and would require minimal tree removal, would cost $5,000 to construct. The district court appointed a condemnation commission to appraise damages, which were set at $9,500.  The neighbors whose land was being condemned did not appeal the appraisal. Instead, they filed the current lawsuit, an action seeking to permanently enjoin (or stop) the condemnation proceedings. According to the neighbors, the proposed access road was not permitted by Iowa law because it was not adjacent to a “division,” “subdivision,” or “forty line.” They also claimed there was an existing route available to the landlocked owners through the gated private road owned by the other neighbors.

The district court denied relief to the neighbors, determining that there was not an adequate alternate route available to the landlocked owners and that the proposed access road properly followed a “division” line.

Appellate Decision

The Iowa Court of Appeals reversed. The court did find that the landlocked owners had the right to condemn a new access road because they did not have an existing route by which to access a public road. The court ruled that the neighbors had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the owners had an “unobstructed and unquestioned right” to use the gated private road.

The court held, however, that the proposed access road was not proper under Iowa Code § 6A.4(2)(b) because it was not adjacent to a “division, subdivision, or ‘forty line,’” which is a boundary of a forty-acre parcel of land (a quarter of a quarter of a section).

The court first determined (and it was undisputed) that the proposed road was not adjacent to a “forty line.” It then analyzed whether it was adjacent to a “division” or “subdivision” line, which were undefined terms in the statute.

The court found that the proposed road ran on an east-west line that would occur if the neighbors’ forty-acre tract (the northeast quarter of the northwest quarter) was itself divided into quarters. The court noted, however, that there had been no actual division because the neighbors owned the entire forty-acre tract. The court analyzed the statute and determined that the legislature intended the terms “division, subdivision, or forty line” to mean “where land had been divided, subdivided, or on the border of a forty-acre tract of land.”

Because the land at issue had not actually been divided, the court ruled that the proposed access road was not on a “division, subdivision, or forty line.”  It was thus not a permissible right-of-way to be condemned under the Iowa Code.

The court ruled that because there was no road that had been established for a period of ten years or more, the landlocked owners were indeed entitled to proceed with a condemnation action. Their proposed route, however, was not permissible. As such, the landlocked owners were required to propose a route (1) located adjacent to a division, subdivision, or forty line and which was the nearest feasible route to an existing public road or (2) along a route established for ten years or more by an easement or by use and travel by the owner of the property and the general public.

The court remanded the case for further proceedings. On remand, the landlocked owners will be free to amend their proposed route to meet the conditions prescribed by the court.