Iowa C.A. adjudicates easement rights of Mississippi River frontage owners

by Gary Taylor

Clancy v. Jessen
(Iowa Court of Appeals, October 7, 2009)

Landowner may grant easement rights beyond prior deed restrictions so long as they do not impair existing rights of other easement holders.

In 1964 the Kelloggs acquired 2.07 acres of property north of the city of McGregor that included 198 feet of riverfront along the Mississippi River.  The property was bisected by railroad tracks.  Three years later they subdivided the property into 17 lots.  Lot 17 had the entire 198 feet of riverfront, but the Kelloggs platted drives so that the other 16 lots were given vehicular access to the riverfront via Lot 17.  The 10 lots west of the railroad tracks were sold over the years – purchasers coming to be known as West Enders – with the following language granting the easement:

“Grantors convey easement to use platted drives, and to travel access and use over and across Lot 17 of Kellogg’s Subdivision, to Mississippi River, and use of riverfront adjacent thereto.”

The 6 lots east of the tracks were sold – purchasers coming to be known as East Enders – with the same language, and also included the following notation:

“Grantors further agree that no buildings of any type shall be allowed on said Lot 17.  Permission granted to grantees to install 3 docks for 3 boats on said Lot 17.” 

Eventually 3 docks were built with room for multiple boats.  Historically, both East Enders and West Enders docked boats at those docks. 

The Kelloggs sold Lot 17 in 1986.  In 2007 several lot owners proposed several new dock plans to the Army Corps of Engineers, who must review and approve such plans on the Mississippi River for navigability.  The Corps approved a plan that provided for one large community dock in the middle of Lot 17 that would accomodate the boats of all West Enders, and two smaller new docks.  The plan left two of the existing docks in place. 

Two East Enders brought suit to stop development of the new dock plan, arguing that only the  deeds of the East Enders granted permission for boat docks, and that the West Enders’ deeds granted no such rights.  The Court of Appeals disagreed.  The East Enders’ claims must fail, reasoned the court, if the docking priviledges granted to the West Enders do not impair the East Enders’ easements rights.  The owner of Lot 17 may elect to confer on the West Enders more benefits than they are entitled to, but that is not concern of the East Enders unless their rights are adversely affected.  The granting of rights to East Enders to install “3 docks for three boats” did not give them rights to have their docks in a particular location on Lot 17.

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