Plain language of right-of-way deeds grant easements

by Andrea Vaage

Sargent County Water Resource District v. Mathews
North Dakota Supreme Court, December 1, 2015

Paul Mathews sought to control land rented to him by Nancy Mathews and Phyllis Delahoyde. In response, The Sargent County Water Resource District filed for declaratory relief in November 2012 as the successor in interest to the Sargent County Board of Drain Commissioners. The Board obtained interest in the property through right-of-way deeds signed in 1917 and 1918.

At issue is whether the deed conveyed an easement or an estate in fee. The district court found the deeds granted fee title in property to the District. The Mathews appealed. The Mathews argued the right-of-way deeds from 1917 and 1918 unambiguously show an intent to convey easements for a right of way when read in plain language. In addition, if the deeds were ambiguous, the Mathews argued the district court interpretation of parol evidence is erroneous. When a deed is unambiguous, meaning of the deed is determined from the document itself. When it is found to be ambiguous, extrinsic evidence may be considered.

The deed reads, in part, that owners:

“grant, sell and convey, and forever release to the people of the County of Sargent, in the State of North Dakota, right of way for the laying out, construction and maintenance of a public drain, as the same may be located by the Board of Drain Commissioners, through said above described lands, being a strip of land . . . [described]. And we hereby release all claims to damages by reason of the laying out, construction and maintenance thereof through our said lands.”

The Court analyzed the deed to understand the grantor’s intent. The deed grants a “right of way” specifically for “construction and maintenance of a public drain” and does not convey an estate in fee. When the granting clause includes the phrase “right of way,” courts have found the deed usually conveys an easement. The Court found the deed was unambiguous and conveyed an easement when read in plain language.

The decision of the district court was reversed.

Co op days shy of being able to claim adverse possession

by Andrea Vaage and Gary Taylor

Quality Ag Service of Iowa Inc. v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, October 30, 2015

At issue is the ownership of a sidetrack adjacent to two Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) tracks running through Melrose, Iowa. Quality Ag of Iowa purchased land on August 25, 2000 from Farmers Coop, which purchased land from BNSF in 1994.  The sale did not include the sidetrack adjacent to the purchased parcel; however, Quality Ag has used the sidetrack to receive fertilizer shipments since 2000. On August 3, 2010, one of BNSF’s trains derailed east of the sidetrack. BNSF used the sidetrack to store equipment after the derailment, preventing Quality Ag from using the sidetrack for fertilizer shipments. Instead, Quality Ag was forced to truck fertilizer in at increased expense.  Quality Ag sued BNSF for damages due to the increased cost of delivery, and property damages resulting from the derailment.  The claim was dismissed and an appeal ensued.

Quality Ag’s owner testified that he believed the sidetrack was part of the land purchased from Farmers Coop because a Farmers Coop representative told him that it did at the time of the sale. He also testified that BNSF entered into a written agreement with Quality Ag that BNSF could use the sidetrack if BNSF maintained it; however, the owner was unable to produce this agreement for trial. Conversely, BNSF was able to produce a land survey showing they owned the sidetrack. On appeal, Quality Ag raised the claim that it owns the sidetrack due to adverse possession.

In order to prove a claim of adverse possession a party must “establish hostile, actual, open, exclusive and continuous possession, under a claim of right or color of title, for at least a ten year period.” Quality Ag would need to establish that it met those conditions from August 25, 2000 to August 25, 2010. Since BNSF used the track for equipment storage on August 3, 2010 and beyond, after the derailment, Ag Services failed to show continuous sole use for a full ten year period.  The maintenance agreement claim also failed because Quality Ag was unable to produce the maintenance agreement or othershow it owned the sidetrack.

The decision of the district court was affirmed.


Documents insufficient to extend HOA covenants beyond 21 years

by Gary Taylor

Chipman’s Subdivision HOA v. Carney and Carney
(Iowa Court of Appeals, February 29, 2012)

In the 1960s, Carroll and Daisy Chipman developed fifteen lots (Chipman’s Subdivision) in rural Johnson County.  E.R. Carney and Kathy Mickalson Carney purchased three lots located in the subdivision in December 1997. In 2010, Chipman’s Subdivision Homeowners Association, Inc. (HOA) commenced a small claims action against the Carneys, claiming the Carneys owed association dues in the amount of $1820 pursuant to covenants originally recorded in 1969 and revised in 1986 and 2003. A member of the HOA board of directors testified that the HOA sought to recover dues under the 1969 covenants, which were amended in 1986 and again in 2003. The document entitled “Protective Covenants and Restrictions” was recorded on April 8, 1969, and specified that any change to the covenants required a majority vote by current lot owners. A document entitled “Covenant” was recorded on January 27, 1986, and stated the intent to establish a homeowners association for the express purpose of “maintenance, repair, upkeep and management of the roads within the Chipman’s Subdivision.”  Further, it set forth a “dues structure,” requiring a new resident to pay a one-time fee equal to one-half the annual dues and all residents to pay ten dollars per month. Five property owners signed the document. The document entitled “Revised and Restated Covenants and Restrictions” was recorded on May 22, 2003, and stated that pursuant to the 1969 covenants the majority of homeowners adopted the revised and restated covenants set forth. One provision extended the obligation to pay dues from only the owners who had a home in the subdivision to those who owned lots in the subdivision. The HOA director testified the Carneys owed dues for the maintenance and repair of the common road in the subdivision.  E.R. Carney testified he purchased the lots in 1997 from a real estate attorney who had informed him the 1969 covenants had expired and the HOA had no legal authority. Carney argued that the covenants recorded in 1969 had expired on April 8, 1990, pursuant to the twenty-one year limitations period set forth in Iowa Code 614.24, and that the document recorded in 1986 was insufficient to extend the covenants.  The district court found the 1986 document was valid and ruled in favor of the HOA.

The Court of Appeals, however, agreed with the Carneys that the 1986 document was inadequate to extend the limitations period.  Specifically the 1986 document did not meet the requirements of Iowa Code 614.24. It did not set forth the nature of the interest as a use restriction previously created, nor did it identify the 1969 covenants that created the use restriction or the date the 1969 covenants were recorded. The 1986 document was not indexed in the claimant’s book.  Finally, the 1986 document was not acknowledged or notarized. The district court found that because the documents were recorded, they were enforceable; however, the recording of a document does not demonstrate its validity.  As the covenants expired because of the invalidity of the 1986 document, the 2003 covenants could not extend the limitations period. The HOA was therefore precluded from recovering the dues it claimed were owed.





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