A recent case from the Iowa Court of Appeals shines the spotlight on Iowa’s private condemnation statute, Iowa Code § 6A.4(2). The statute, which takes some people by surprise,[i] grants private landowners a narrow power of eminent domain to acquire an access route to a landlocked parcel. The Iowa case, Middle River Farms, LLC v. Antrim,[ii] demonstrates the importance of “firming up” casual rights of way. It also shows the discretion possessed by a trial court in granting an access route through a private condemnation action.
The appellants in this case owned a parcel of land that was bisected by a river. Because of the river, the appellants could not access the southern section of their parcel from the northern section of their parcel. In fact, they owned no property from which they could access the southern tract. Nor did this parcel adjoin a public roadway. It was truly landlocked. Beginning in 1953, and for many years thereafter, the appellants had accessed the landlocked parcel via a grassy strip along a tree line. The grassy strip was maintained by the appellee's predecessor in interest whose property bordered the appellants’ landlocked parcel to the south and east. The appellee’s predecessor had maintained the grassy strip for the benefit of the appellants and their tenants who raised cattle and hunted on their landlocked parcel.
For many years, the appellee rented its predecessor’s property, and in 2000, appellee began planting crops up to the tree line, eliminating the grassy strip. The appellee refused to provide the appellants continued access to the grassy strip. In 2012, the appellee purchased the property from its predecessor and came to own the only feasible potential routes via which the appellants could access their landlocked parcel.
The Condemnation Action
When the appellants tried to sell their property in 2013, the deal fell through because they were unable to guarantee to the interested buyers an access route. They then initiated a private condemnation action under Iowa Code § 6A.4, asking to have the original grassy strip route declared to be a “public way.” Iowa Code § 6A.4(2)(b) sets forth the requirements for condemning a public way:
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.
The appellee challenged the condemnation action by filing an action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, asking the trial court to determine the proper route for the condemned public way.[iii] The trial court considered three possible routes (pictured below), only two of which were truly viable. Alternate three was the tree-lined pathway the appellants sought to condemn. Alternate one, the one proposed by appellee, was the shortest path, but it would be the most difficult route to construct due to grades reaching 23 to 25 percent. Lower portions of route one would require culverts to prevent washout. Route three, although longer, was level and would cost much less to prepare. One expert estimated it would cost $12,000 to prepare route three and $40,000 to prepare route one. The trial court found that the actual cost would fall somewhere around $20,000 for route one.
Although more expensive, route one would take no land out of production for the appellee. Route three, however, would result in a permanent loss of approximately 1.1 acres of crop land or just under 1.5% of appellee’s tillable land. Based upon this factor, the trial court ruled that route one was the “nearest feasible route.”
Iowa Court of Appeals
The appellants challenged this ruling, first arguing that their proposed route had been “established for a period of 10 years or more…by use and travel to and from the property by the owner and the general public,” as contemplated by Iowa Code § 6A.4(2)(b) (set forth above). The Iowa Court of Appeals disposed of this argument quickly, finding that the evidence did not show that the route had been used “with any frequency” in the last 10 years.
The court then turned to the appellants’ argument that the selected route one was not “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” as is required by Iowa Code § 6A.4(2). The court held that it was route one (the selected route) that actually ran along a “division line.” Route three, the court ruled, did not run along any existing “division, subdivision, or forty line.”
Even so, the court went on to address the appellants’ primary contention that the route selected was not the “nearest feasible route to a public road.” The appellants argued that because route one connected only to a class “B” county road, it was not “reasonably adequate for the intended purpose.” They also alleged that the excessive cost to convert route one to a usable road was not “feasible.” The court rejected both arguments.
The court reviewed the trial court’s conclusion that the permanent impact to appellee, in terms of crop loss, was more significant than the one-time construction costs. The court concluded that the trial court’s conclusion that route one was the “nearest feasible” route was not erroneous.
The court then looked to the “plain language” of the statute to find that there was no statutory requirement that the access route connect to a class “A” road. The statute required only access to “an existing public road.” This, the court found, would clearly include the class “B” county road to which route one connected. As such, route one was affirmed as the proper route for condemnation.
Of the three-justice panel reviewing the case, one justice wrote the court’s opinion, one justice concurred (without opinion), and one justice dissented. The dissenting justice asserted that the “substantial grade and the substantial cost in development of the route proposed by [appellee], along with the route’s access, which is limited to a class ‘B’ road, result in [appellee’s] proposed route—route one—not being a feasible route, and it does not provide reasonable access.”
Given the strong language of the dissent, a further appeal is possible. We will keep you posted.
This case could have been avoided had the appellants secured a legal “right of way” to their landlocked parcel years ago. Preferably such an easement could have been acquired through a voluntary agreement with the original neighbor, who was always generous to freely provide the appellants access to their landlocked parcel. Because they did not secure this access by agreement (or through a prior action seeking a prescriptive easement), they were left to rely on their condemnation rights. As is evident from this case, those rights are “bare-boned” rather than “preferred.” And that’s likely as it should be when private citizens are exercising rights of eminent domain.
So what's the takeaway? Secure those rights of way through agreement and avoid having the location of your access route left to the discretion of a trial court.
[i] In that it grants a private individual the right to eminent domain, a public function.
[ii] Middle River Farms, LLC v. Antrim, No. 15-0044 (Iowa Ct. App. April 27, 2016).
[iii] Because a private condemnation action has no procedure for a hearing on the validity of the proposed route, the second action was filed. The private condemnation statute “does not contemplate that the applicant who claims to be landlocked be required to litigate the issue before exercising the power of condemnation.” Owens v. Brownlie, 610 N.W.2d 860, 869 (Iowa 2000).
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