When Land Changes Hands, the Court Must Determine Parties’ Rights

April 20, 2012 | Erika Eckley


Two recent Iowa cases point out that when details of intentions concerning the use and responsibilities between parties affecting land are not explicitly written out, disputes can occur upon change in ownership and control of that land. That is precisely what happened in the following cases. The parties and facts are the same for both cases.

The plaintiffs purchased an acreage from a farmer, the defendant’s grandfather. A highway ran on the east side of the plaintiffs’ property. The farmer retained an easement across the plaintiffs’ property to access his farmland on the far side of the highway. The easement passed in front of the plaintiffs’ home and between the corner of a barn and the house. It also covered part of a 0.02-acre triangular parcel of land previously owned by the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT).

The Easement Action

At the time of the sale, the farmer installed a gate across his driveway and the lane to the plaintiffs’ land.  The gate was 18-feet wide and restricted the use of the easement to equipment that was not more than 18- feet wide. From 1990-2000, the farmland accessed by the easement was placed into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), so the use of the easement was limited to when the farmer sprayed for weeds or mowed the land. 

At some point during this time, the defendant had taken over farming his grandfather’s land. In 2000, the farmland came out of the CRP. The defendant began utilizing the easement with greater frequency. In 2001, the defendant removed the gate to enable better access for his larger tractor, combine, and mower. He complained about trees on the plaintiffs’ land impeding his access. For a couple of years the defendant used an alternative route to access the farmland, but the route was steep and he had to maneuver his equipment backwards to prevent his combine from tipping. 

The parties could not resolve the conflict, and the plaintiffs brought suit in 2009 to determine the rights and duties between the parties regarding the use of the easement. The district court ruled that the easement should be used for agricultural purposes only and be thirty feet wide and twenty-one feet tall and the costs of maintenance and repair should be split evenly between the parties with the exception of a portion to be maintained solely by the defendant. The parties were also to split the cost of trimming trees. 

Upon reconsideration of the ruling, at the plaintiffs’ request, the court acknowledged the easement should be narrower in the area between the plaintiffs’ home, garage, and barn because 30-foot access was not feasible in that area. The court also determined that the use of the easement should not be limited to agricultural use.  The court held that the plaintiffs were allowed to put up gates as long as they were operational and complied with the width and height of the easement. The plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs argued that the distance between the house and barn was only 23.4 feet, so the easement should not be any wider than this at any point. Also, the plaintiffs pointed out that the easement had historically been limited to a width of 18 feet, and was for agricultural purposes only. 

The appellate court reviewed the written express easement to determine the intent of the parties. The court found that there was no expression of intent regarding the width of the easement. The court held that the easement could not physically be more than 23.4 feet due to the physical constraints of the plaintiffs’ property. The court agreed 23.4 feet would also be sufficient for the defendant’s needs. The court also held that as part of the maintenance and repair of the easement, there was no need to change the slope of the easement, so the plaintiffs were not required to pay for any grading work. Finally, the court upheld the use of the easement for more than mere agricultural uses.  Olsen v. HenningsNo. 1-870/11-0659, 2012 WL 1245951 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2012).

The Adverse Possession Action

In a separate action involving the same parties, the plaintiffs sought to quiet title to the .02-acre triangle of land near the southeast corner of their barn. The piece of land was the portion remaining after IDOT condemned part of the farmer’s land to construct a highway. After the plaintiffs purchased their property, the farmer and IDOT entered into a settlement agreement giving the farmer ownership of the .02 acre triangle. The farmer no longer owned any land adjacent to the triangular section because he had sold the adjacent property to the plaintiffs. He told the plaintiffs the piece was part of their homestead. The plaintiffs, under the direction of the farmer, installed a fence around the triangle. 

In order to use the easement, the defendant was required to cross part of this .02-acre piece of land. This addition increased the area beside the plaintiffs’ barn to a width of 23.4 feet, enough to easily accommodate the farmer’s easement.
After taking over his grandfather’s farming operation, the defendant complained to the plaintiffs that their fence was misplaced because the defendant owned the .02-acre triangle. A few years later, IDOT sent a letter to the plaintiff to have the defendant’s grandmother sign an affidavit stating she was making no claim of right, title, or interest in the .02-acre triangle. She refused to sign. Instead, the defendant removed the plaintiffs’ fence, and the grandmother signed a warranty deed transferring the triangle to her trust, which the defendant controlled. The plaintiffs filed suit to quiet title to the parcel claiming they were owners by way of adverse possession. 

The district court agreed with the plaintiffs, finding the farmer had originally intended for the .02 acres to be included in the plaintiffs’ property and that the plaintiffs had claimed ownership for more than 10 years. In the alternative, the court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to the property under the theory of a boundary by acquiescence. The defendant appealed arguing the plaintiffs did not establish adverse possession because there was no proof of hostile or exclusive possession of the land or that the land was occupied by the plaintiffs through claim of right. The court addressed each element in turn.

Typically, hostile possession can be demonstrated by showing that the individual has taken and maintained possession of the property by openly managing and caring for the property as a true owner would. In reviewing the plaintiffs’ facts, the court found that the plaintiffs had fenced the area, mowed the property, and treated it as their own since 1982. These facts were sufficient to establish hostile possession.

The defendant claimed that because the easement extended over part of the disputed parcel and the easement had been used continuously, the plaintiffs did not have proof of exclusive possession. The court reminded the defendant that the plaintiffs are not required to show absolutely exclusive possession and the plaintiffs may permit others to use the property. An easement is a permissive grant to access and use the property subject to the easement. Because the defendant’s use of the property was granted only by the easement, the plaintiffs proved that they had maintained exclusive possession of the 0.02-acre triangle.

To establish a claim of right, the court stated that an individual must show he has taken and maintained the property as a true owner would by occupying, maintaining, or improving the land. The claim of right must also be asserted in good faith. The court found there was no written documentation regarding the ownership of the parcel, but that the plaintiffs had taken, occupied, and used the property as if they were the true owners for more than ten years.

Based on the evidence establishing all necessary elements of adverse possession, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s order granting ownership of the .02-acre triangle to the plaintiffs. Olsen v. HenningsNo. 2-192/11-0096, 2012 WL 1247113 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2012).