Court interprets easement to allow access at location of grantee’s choosing

by Melanie Thwing and Gary Taylor

Binns v. Stewart
(Iowa Court of Appeals, August 25, 2010)

Don and Brenda Stewart own lot 19 and Mark and Grace Binns own lot 20 in Hidden River Heights Subdivision Part III in Cedar County, Iowa.  The lots are located in a cul-de-sac that is subject to restrictive covenants. On the Stewart’s lot (19) runs a private blacktop driveway that provides access to the subdivision’s well. The Stewarts acquired their land from Wilton Motors, Inc and the deed included two easements. One gave Hidden River Heights Homeowners Association (HOA) an easement of ingress and egress over the private drive of lot 19, up to #1 Well and required the HOA to maintain that portion of the driveway.  The HOA thus built a blacktop service road across the property subject to this easement.  The service road was approximately 10 feet from the boundary between lots 19 and 20  The second easement – the subject of the litigation – states that owners and successors to Lot 20 will share access to that same access road.

Prior to acquiring lot 19 the Stewarts offered an addendum to the warranty deed that stated Lot 20 will share access to the driveway. The owners of lot 20 then built an access driveway directly from the property line, across the 10-foot strip to the blacktop access road. 

When the Binns purchased lot 20 they wanted to change the angle of the access driveway. The Stewarts argued against this arguing that the easement only allowed the owners of Lot 20 to travel from the cul-de-sac to the driveway, to the well, without access to lot 20.  Binns filed a declaratory judgment motion in district court for the use of the easement.

In district court the Stewarts argued that the easement was ambiguous and therefore unenforceable. Looking to the addendum that was offered by them prior to purchasing, the court held that the addendum granted the owners of Lot 20 the right “to access the road from any portion of their lot across the road from any portion of their lot across the 10-ft. space between the Lot 19 boundary and the blacktop road.”

The Stewarts had also argued that the easement was in contravention of the restrictive covenants. The district court dismisses this, stating that the Stewarts had allowed to easement in their deed and therefore did not have the right to complain that it is in violation. In all totality, the court concluded that the owners of Lot 20 have direct access to the service road that leads from the cul-de-sac to the well and serves as the driveway for lot 19, and that the owners of Lot 19 could not create any obstruction that would block this. It allowed the owners of Lot 20 to build a road from the boundary of Lot 20 to the service road.

The Stewarts appeal to the Iowa Court of Appeals, first arguing the easement was not ambiguous and that the easement should be enforced as written, without consideration of the offer to purchase. This easement was created by grant, and in Iowa the grantor’s intent is controlling and applied by general contract principles. The Stewarts’ interpretation of the easement is unreasonable, because the language in the easement has a clear intent to an easement over the 10-ft. in question. The Stewarts’ interpretation would render the easement completely useless to the owners of lot 20.  The only reasonable reading can come from allowing Lot 20 to share access to the drive as well as the land between the two lots necessary to access the driveway.

Finally, the Stewarts argue that the district court had effectively expanded the easement because their ruling does not limit where the owners of Lot 20 can access the driveway on Lot 19’s property. The Binns argue that the easement simply does not limit the area under the easement as the blacktop portion of the easement way, but that they also have the right to build an access to the blacktop at any point along the way. The Binns argued they were not seeking an expansion of the easement, they were merely asking the court to define their right so they could continue with the construction of their driveway. The court could not find any reason to disagree with this. The district court was correct in their ruling.

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