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.

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.





Admin Menu