Iowa Court Says That City Must Pay to Expand Easement

October 13, 2016 | Kristine A. Tidgren

A case decided yesterday by the Iowa Court of Appeals highlights a general, yet important principle governing Iowa easements:

Once a valid easement has been created and the servient landowner justly compensated, the continued use of the easement must not place a greater burden on the servient estate than was contemplated at the time of formation.

In the case at hand, the court affirmed a district court ruling finding that the City of Bettendorf violated that principle by initiating a new streambank-stabilization project without acquiring expanded easements from the impacted landowners.

The plaintiffs were landowners whose backyards abutted Stafford Creek. In 1968, the City of Bettendorf acquired easements granting it the right to enter 25-feet of property on either side of the Creek for “utility purposes and for sanitary sewer and storm sewer purposes and for drainage purposes.”    

Several years ago, the City adopted the Stafford Creek Stream Bank Improvement Project. The Project was designed to stabilize the creek banks to reduce erosion, protect neighboring homes and businesses, and protect the City’s storm water drainage system. The project required removing all trees and foliage within the 25-foot easements on both sides of the creek, installing a retaining wall, adding a 75-foot coconut wood log on the landowners’ property, installing chain link fences through the creek bed, installing a 25-ton collection of rocks along the creek bed, and re-grading the slope of the back half of the adjacent landowners’ back yards, making that portion of their yards about twice as steep as before.

The City, arguing that the improvements were within the scope of the purposes contemplated for the current 25-foot easements, sought a 7.5-foot temporary construction easement along the 25-foot easements. The landowners responded by seeking a temporary and permanent injunction to stop the construction. The landowners contended that the current easements did not contemplate the extent of the work being proposed by the City. As such, they alleged that the Project would constitute a taking for which they were entitled to compensation.

The district court entered judgment in favor of the landowners and the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed. In making its ruling, the court relied on the three considerations set forth in Keokuk Junction Ry. Co. v. IES Indus., 618 N.W.2d 352 (Iowa 2000), for determining whether a propose use improperly expands the scope of a current easement:

  1. The physical character of past use compared to the proposed use
  2. The purpose of the easement compared to the proposed use
  3. The additional burden imposed on the servient land by the proposed use

In evaluating these considerations, the court specifically found that the proposed project would substantially change the physical character of the past use of the landowners’ property. The court also agreed with the district court’s finding that “the substance and particularly the scope of the work exceeds the purpose of mere maintenance and installation of sewage or drainage utilities.” Rather, the purpose of the current project was to reshape the creek and its surrounding creek bed to cure and prevent erosion. This was “greater” than the original purpose in both scope and magnitude. Finally, the court agreed that the project would impose a substantial new burden on the landowners’ property. The regrading, walls, fencing, and rock would alter the aesthetics, the regrading would result in a significantly steeper backyard slope, and all trees and foliage would be removed. The landowners presented evidence that the project would cause them a loss of value in their properties ranging from $27,500 to $30,250. The court found that even if the actual devaluation were half of that amount, the burden would be “substantial.”

The court thus found that the grantors of the original easement did not contemplate the expansive use of the easement now sought. As such, the landowners were entitled to just compensation for an additional taking of their property.

The case is Hamner v. City of Bettendorf, No. 15-2154 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2016).