Creek stabilization plan went beyond scope of original drainage easement

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Hamner v City of Bettendorf
Iowa Court of Appeals, October 12, 2016

Property owners in the Rolling Meadows subdivision complained that the City of Bettendorf overstepped their powers when they used a 25-foot “utility and drainage easement” established in 1968 for a stream bank stabilization project in 2015. Property owners claimed that the use of the 25-foot easement for stream bank stabilization constituted a taking and argued that they should be compensated for the land. The City did not offer any compensation for the removal of trees, change in land elevation, or the regrading of the property owners’ land.

The City argued that it was in the public interest to stabilize the creek, and that the easements granted in 1968 contemplated the type of work conducted by the City in 2015; thus the landowners were not entitled to compensation.

The district court ruled in favor of the landowners because the 1968 easement was granted to maintain the sanitary sewer, storm sewer, Stafford Creek drainage, and utility poles. The court determined that stabilizing the creek overstepped the City’s powers.  The City appealed.

On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals used a three-part test to evaluate the scope of the easement: 1) the physical character of past use compared to the proposed use; 2) the purpose of the easement compared to the purpose of the proposed use; and 3) the additional burden imposed on the servient land by the proposed use.

Physical character of past use compared to the proposed use. The City planned to remove all trees and foliage, install a retaining wall on one side of the creek, and place twenty-five tons of rocks along both sides.  The court concluded that this work would substantially change the physical character of the past use of the properties.

Purpose of the easement compared to the purpose of the proposed use.  The court found that while the proposed work did pertain to drainage in a general sense…the purpose of the project was to reshape Stafford Creek and the surrounding creek bed to cure past erosion and prevent future erosion.

Additional burden imposed on the servient land by the proposed use. The landowners presented estimates from a consultant of the loss of value of their properties ranging from $27,500 to $30,250.  This suggested a burden way beyond that contemplated by the original easement

The court determined that the original grantors of the easements did not “contemplate the expansive use of the easement now sought” by the City, and that the radical changes to the land demanded compensation to the landowners under Article I, Section 18 of the Iowa Constitution (the Takings Clause).

 

 

 

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