Supreme Court Vacates Appeals Court Decision Regarding Private Condemnation of Access Route

January 10, 2010 | Erin Herbold

When a landowner owns a parcel of land that is landlocked, the landowner can access the property by the nearest feasible route. Iowa courts have typically refused to examine the impact on the servient estate (the land that is being crossed) when determining the location of the nearest feasible route. 

In this case, an LLC purchased a landlocked parcel and used it for recreational purposes and occasional logging. The LLC knew the parcel was landlocked upon its purchase and soon thereafter instituted condemnation proceedings under Iowa Code §6A.4(2) for a dirt lane that crossed the plaintiff’s tract. In 2007, the plaintiffs filed suit, arguing that the route the LLC was seeking to condemn was not the nearest feasible route to an existing public road as required by the Iowa Code.   The plaintiffs argued that an alternate route should be used, an old Class B road that was supposedly used by the public. However, the trial court allowed the condemnation and the plaintiffs appealed. The appellate court cited an earlier Iowa Supreme Court ruling, dealing with eminent domain, in its discussion of this case. While the plaintiffs argued that the court should consider the value of the property to be condemned before and after the creation of the public way, the court disagreed. Under Iowa law, property values may be considered, but only when the landowner has a way to the landlocked parcel through his own land. Since that was not the set of facts here, the appellate court was not willing to examine the affect on property values. The court reminded the plaintiffs that if they were not satisfied with the compensation awarded by the county condemnation board, they could appeal that finding at a later time. 

The plaintiffs also argued that the lane in question had never been a public road.  Thus, the lane was not the most feasible route. Evidence did indicate that though the lane was designated as a county Class B road, it was never used as a public way and according to the county engineer was never maintained by the county. The plaintiffs further contended that the court was relying on mere hearsay evidence (out of court statements) to establish the nearest feasible route in favor of the LLC. The appellate court found that this evidence was allowable because it was offered to illuminate the issue of whether the condemnation proceeding would solve the LLC’s inability to access their property. Thus, the evidence fell under a hearsay exception and was admissible.

Further, the appellate court went along with the district court’s determination that the LLC’s route was the nearest feasible route to an existing public road. Based upon testimony that the LLC’s route would be less costly to build and offer fewer terrain and maintenance challenges, the court allowed the condemnation of the LLC’s favored route.   

A dissenting judge argued that the court should have considered the impact of the road’s placement on the servient estate. The dissent indicated that the plaintiff’s proposed route straddled the edge of the farm and went through undeveloped land. Indeed, the LLC’s route cut through the middle of the plaintiff’s dairy farm, which they had owned and operated for 27 years. According to the dissent, the court’s choice of route would do more harm than benefit to the parties, and the most practical route should have been chosen.  Perhaps based on the comments of the dissent, the plaintiffs sought the Iowa Supreme Court’s review, which was granted. 

On that further review, the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed with the Iowa Court of Appeal’s rationale, especially in regards to the “nearest feasible route” doctrine. The Court first discussed the taking of private property by private condemnation. Private condemnation is a narrow area of Iowa’s eminent domain law- which normally only confers the right to take private property to governmental entities. Private condemnation by private individuals is allowed as a narrow form of eminent domain. Iowa Code § 6A.4(2) gives private individuals and the courts guidance on how to determine the appropriate route to condemn private land for access to landlocked parcels. In pertinent part, the code 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.”

Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that to resolve this case it must ask, (1) what constitutes a public road, and (2) whether the costs in acquiring the condemned property (for both parties) can be evaluated in determining “nearest feasible route.” 

First, the Court determined that the lane in question, here, was not a “public road,” based upon the testimony of neighbors.  Also, in an interesting move for the Court, they examined legislative intent and opined that the legislature’s intent was to require that “a route of condemnation connect landlocked property to an existing public road.”  That was not the case here. 
So, the Iowa Supreme Court then evaluated the costs associated with the “nearest feasible route” in acquiring the condemned property. The Court was quick to point out that the legislature did not offer a definition of what is “feasible” under the statute. Thus, in the absence of a clear meaning prescribed by statute, the Court assigned the “normal” meaning to the word to resolve this case.  Here, “feasible” most likely deals with notions of “reasonableness” in condemning the private property. 

By implementing a “reasonableness of the route standard” in the absence of a public road, the Iowa Supreme Court has placed the focus on the needs of the individuals involved in the taking of private property. Thus, these cases will be dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis. Here, the Court looked at which route was easiest to construct and which route would do the least harm to neighboring landowners. Using this more flexible approach, the court remanded the case to the local trial court, once again, to evaluate the costs of all possible routes and order the parties to comply with the most reasonable route.  Green v. Wilderness, L.L.C.,777 N.W.2d 699 (Iowa Sup. Ct. 2010), rev’g, Green v. Wilderness Ridge, L.L.C., No. 9-157/08-1009, 2009 Iowa App. LEXIS 440  (Iowa Ct. App., May 29, 2009).