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Iowa Supreme Ct. examines scope of access easement

September 10th, 2009

by Allison Arends

Stew-Mc Development v. Fischer
(Iowa Supreme Court, August 14, 2009).

Proposed use of farm access lane for access to residential subdivision would exceed original scope of easement.

In 1888, Anton Birkel purchased land in Dubuque County, which was eventually passed down to Ferdinand Birkel. During Ferdinand’s ownership, his mother, Rosa, lived on a separate farm on the northern part of his property. Ferdinand allowed Rosa and other relatives to travel across his land in order to access public roads and other parts of the property. After Rosa sold her property and it was divided into two lots, Ferdinand continued to allow the new owners of Rosa’s property to travel across his land. This “access way” was later named Kress Lane. In 1983, Ferdinand Birkel’s land was sold to Nancy and Thomas Fischer, who continued to allow the owners of the northern properties to use Kress Lane for access purposes. Prior to this case, the owners of the two northern lots were James Kress and Joseph and Penni Schmitt. Although Kress Lane is vital to the survival of these farms, Dubuque County never formally accepted it as a public road, although over the years the county has rocked and graded it, and given it a name for 911 emergency addressing purposes.  The Birkel-Fischer chain of ownership has never established a written legal instrument granting a formal easement across the Fischer party for Kress Lane.

In February 2002, Stew-Mc Development, Inc. made an offer to purchase the two-hundred acre Kress estate in hopes that the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors would approve an application to rezone the property to permit single-family residential development. At the Dubuque County Planning Zoning Commission where Kress’ application was considered, Nancy Fischer objected, stating that Kress Lane was only an access easement over her property, and the northern landowners had no real ownership. As a result, the application was denied on the grounds that the Kress property had insufficient public access.

Kress and Stew-Mc filed for a declaratory judgment claiming that Kress Lane was a county road, thereby providing sufficient public access necessary for residential development. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Fischers. The court determined that Kress lane was a private road based on “an easement and was not a public roadway, either by direct acquisition, formal dedication and acceptance, implied dedication or prescriptive easement.” The court also determined that despite the “scope” of the easement, it was not “broad enough to cover the proposed residential development. “

The court applied law of easements in which they found they must look at the original scope and use of the easement, which was granted to the two farm properties at a time when residential development was not contemplated. The court also decided that if the scope of the easement was not defined, the easement is limited to what is “reasonably necessary and convenient for the purposes for which it was created.” The court also noted that the development of the residential area would not only increase the use of the easement, but it would change the nature of the easement constituting an extra burden upon the dominant estate.

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