Intent must be “clear and unequivocal” to result in dedication of land to the public

by Gary Taylor

McNaughton v. Chartier and the City of Lawton
Iowa Supreme Court, June 24, 2022

In 1999 McNaughton entered into an easement agreement with the Chartiers to allow a small part of a road to pass through McNaughton’s property. The road was used to access the Chartiers’ business from Highway 20, and the dedication amounted to a 23’ x 80’ strip. The agreement provided that it was a “‘private’ easement granted for the use and benefit of the parties . . . and [was] not to be construed as an easement for the use and benefit of the general public.”

Shortly thereafter the city of Lawton paved and completed other improvements to the access road (now Char-Mac Drive). The paved portion covers 13’ x 60’ of the easement. During the early 2000s the city repeatedly asked McNaughton to dedicate the paved portion to the city but McNaughton refused. The reason he gave was that the city failed to maintain the paved portion of the easement. Language was included in the agreement between McNaughton and the Chartiers that the Chartiers “shall be obligated to take all action necessary to ensure that the town of Lawton becomes contractually obligated to maintain the easement area….” It is unclear whether this happened, but McNaughton testified that the city removed snow only a few times and generally failed to maintain the road.

When the Chartiers sold their property, they discovered that McNaughton had never recorded the easement agreement with the county. The Chartiers asked McNaughton to sign a Clarification of Easement essentially assigning the easement to the purchasers and offered him $15,000 but he refused, and thereafter made various escalating offers ($100,000, then $160,000, then $410,000, then in exchange for 50 acres of farmland) to the Chartiers to either sign the easement or sell his entire property. They refused. McNaughton sued, claiming purchaser had no rights under the easement because of failure to assign them.

The District Court found McNaughton had “dedicated the concrete portion of the easement to the City” because, among other things, the public had used the easement as the parties had agreed and because McNaughton had “never attempted to restrict the use of the concrete portion of the easement area.” Alternatively, the district court found that the easement was appurtenant to the Chartier’s property and passed to the purchaser upon sale. The Court of Appeals disagreed with both conclusions of the district court, as did the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court observed that a grantor’s intent to dedicate land to the public for public use must be clear and unmistakable, and must be accomplished through “deliberate, unequivocal, and decisive acts and declarations of the owner, manifesting a positive and unmistakable intention to permanently abandon his property to the specific public use.” “Mere permissive use of a way, no matter how long continued, will not amount to a dedication.” The Court found that the language in the original agreement; that the easement was “not to be construed as an easement for the use and benefit of the general public” established just the contrary. Furthermore, language in the easement that “[t]he easement rights granted herein may not be assigned by Chartier to any other party or parties without the express written consent of McNaughton or his successors or assigns” served to negate the district court’s conclusion that the easement passed to the purchasers upon sale.

The specific language in an easement must be given effect. McNaughton wins.

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