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A court may grant an easement by necessity as a remedy when an owner splits a parcel into two properties, and one of those new properties becomes inaccessible. The idea is that the parties did not intend to create a property unfit for occupancy. A recent decision by the Court of Special Appeals affirming a Garrett County circuit court decision highlights how a court may handle this issue. The decision is in Gunfeld Coal Co. v. Carey.
What Is an Easement by Necessity?
An easement by necessity is defined as an “easement created by operation of law because the easement is indispensable to the reasonable use of nearby property, such as an easement connecting a parcel of land to a road” (Black’s Law Dictionary). As the definition highlights, an easement by necessity is created when splitting a parcel of land, and one of the created parcels will no longer have a road to access the property. For example, if Will owns 100 acres of land and grants 20 acres of that land to his son, Steve, that acreage has no road access. Steve would be able to claim an easement by necessity across Will’s property to access the road. The rationale for this is that the law presumes that Will’s transfer intent was not to make Steve’s property unfit for use.
The person arguing for the easement must show three elements to prove an easement by necessity. First, is the requirement of unity of title. In other words, there was a time that the original owner owned the two pieces of property. Second, there must be evidence the title was severed; in other words, evidence is needed showing the title was split, and separate tracts were created. Third, there must be evidence that it is necessary to cross the property to access the other property. This third element must show this access existed when the titles were severed and as conditions currently exist. In other words, the one party would need to show that access to the other property has not changed over time.
This case involves land grants from the State of Maryland to veterans of the Revolutionary War in 1788 and involves Military Lots 2058, 2069, 2070, 2071, and 2079. In 1788, the state conveyed lots 2069 and 2070 to Henry Dobson and lots 2058, 2071, and 2079 to Thomas Mason. A property survey before 1788 did not include any roads or waterways going through to the lots. In 1843, Dobson died without heirs, and his property went to the state. Later the state sold lot 2069 to Wiland and lot 2070 to Winterburg. When Winterburg took title to lot 2070, a new survey showed the Casselman River passed through a portion of the lot. Years later, Winterburg granted a right-of-way for a railroad to run through lot 2070. In 1965, Gunfeld Coal Company (Gunfeld) purchased lot 2070. Carey purchased lot 2058 and parts of lots 2071 and 2079 in 1988. Pepper purchased lot 2069 in 1992.
Gunfeld’s lot is not adjoined by a public road and has no deeded right to access. Since 1965, Gunfeld has not used lot 2070 for timber harvesting. When Carey purchased his lots, he bought an easement across lot 2069 and another to access the public road. Pepper bought lot 2069 and an adjoining lot with access to the public road. Gunfeld brought an action claiming an easement by necessity either cross Pepper’s lots to access the public road or across both Carey’s and Pepper’s lots to access the public road. The circuit court held that Gunfeld failed to prove the three elements discussed above necessary to establish an easement by necessity. Gunfeld appealed that decision to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
Court of Special Appeals Decision
On appeal, Gunfeld presented evidence that a common grantor created the lots in 1788, the State of Maryland. At the granting of title in 1788 to lot 2070 (Gunfeld’s), the lot was inaccessible without the easement. The issue here is that Gunfeld failed to demonstrate that the easement by necessity existed in 1788 and that there the property was inaccessible without the easement by necessity at conveyance. The court agreed with the circuit court that Gunfeld produced no evidence that Dobson could not access lots 2070 and 2069 other than crossing Mason’s lots. Additionally, Gunfeld never showed that when Pepper’s property (lot 2069) was severed from lot 2070 in 1843, lot 2070 was inaccessible other than crossing lot 2069. At the same time, Gunfeld failed to show that access was not available to lot 2070 by the Casselman River, which that runs through the property.
The circuit court also found that Gunfeld was barred by laches from bringing a claim of easement by necessity. Laches is defined as an “[u]nreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim.” Laches is a defense in equity that defendants can raise against stale claims and is based on the public policy decision to discourage bringing older claims. In this case, Gunfeld bought the property in 1965 and brought the suit in 2018. Gunfeld did not explain the 53-year delay in bringing the suit for an easement by necessity. The Careys bought their property in 1988 and the Peppers in 1992. Both the Careys and Peppers took steps to gain access to their respective properties when purchasing them. In the 20-plus years of owning those properties, however, the Careys and Peppers had no notice that Gunfeld could press claims to create an easement by necessity. To the court, if they were aware of this, they might have purchased other properties or purchased the same properties at lower prices to accommodate Gunfeld’s easement. The court affirmed the circuit court’s decision.
This case highlights a critical aspect for landowners who may need to bring a claim for an easement by necessity. If a landowner has an inaccessible property, the landowner should not wait to bring suit. Gunfeld waited 53 years without explaining why. Another reason to highlight this case is the path taken by the Peppers and the Careys. Both purchased inaccessible lots but worked with neighboring landowners to negotiate easements across the adjacent properties to access the public road. This negotiated approach will potentially be a more long-term benefit to both landowners and ensure that future owners maintain access to the property.
Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019)
Gunfeld Coal Co. v. Carey, No. 50, Sept. Term, 2021, 2022 WL 767215 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Mar. 14, 2022).