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Understanding Equitable Easements

Martinez Law Office, Inc April 12, 2022

If you’re a real estate owner or prospective owner in or around Santa Ana, California, and you need to know more about easements, it’s important to get your facts straight. An easement is a right to cross over or use someone else’s property for access to your own property or for access to public property, such as a park or an ocean. Easements can thus be either public or private.

For example, a private easement can exist when three homes sit atop one another on a hillside, and the two property owners on top of the bottom owner must cross over that owner’s property to access their own property. Or the situation could be three owners of farmland who face a similar situation in which they must share an accessway. A public easement can exist when, for instance, owners of beach property are required to provide access to the ocean through their property.

In legal terms, the parcel of land that benefits from the easement is the “dominant” tenement or estate, whereas the “servient” tenement or estate is the parcel of land that provides the easement.

Are you a real estate owner or prospective owner in California and are facing an issue regarding easements? Contact me at the Martinez Law Office, Inc. I have more than two decades of experience in handling real estate cases and I stand ready to help you with an easement issue, whether you’re the dominant or servient tenant.

Types of Easements

In California, the basic statutory framework for easements is set forth in the California Civil Code. There are generally four types of easements:

Express Easement: This is probably the most common type of easement. Express means that it is in writing. An express easement can be created either through a grant or a reservation. A grant is an outright easement for the benefit of another. A reservation means that the land is sold to another but the original owner reserves the right to the easement for their benefit.

Implied Easement: There is no written agreement, but the use of the easement has been implied by prior use—“the owner’s prior existing use of the property was of a nature that the parties must have intended or believed the use would continue….”

Easement By Necessity: There is no written agreement, and perhaps no prior use, but access to the land for easement purposes is deemed necessary—for instance, there is no other way to get to a public street.

Prescriptive Easement: When one party uses another party’s property for a period of five years or longer in a “continuous and uninterrupted” pattern without permission but the use was “open and easily observable,” the result can be what is called a prescriptive easement. It is a form of adverse possession.

What Is an Equitable Easement?

If you cannot establish a prescriptive easement, you may be able to establish an equitable easement through a court order. In cases of equitable easement, the courts will use what is called a “relative hardship” test. This requires that the party seeking the equitable easement establish three factors:

  1. You have used and improved an easement for a long period of time with an innocent belief that you had the right to use the land and did so without negligence;

  2. There would be irreparable harm if you cannot continue to use the easement; and

  3. The affected property owner will suffer little harm from your continued use.

Equitable easement cases generally arise when one property owner sues to stop the use of their land by another—trespassing—or the user/encroacher sues to legally establish an easement.

Proving Innocence
for Equitable Easements

California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in Hansen v. Sandridge Partners, L.P. addressed the issue of innocence and negligence in cases of equitable easements. The Hansen family owned 382 acres of farmland in Tulare County, but there were 10 acres of “Disputed Land” with their neighbor, originally the Valovs but later the Sandridge Partners.

In 2012, the Hansens planted pistachio trees on the Disputed Land and installed a drip irrigation system. The Valovs did not complain but soon sold the land to Sandridge.

Litigation ensued, and the Hansens sought both a prescriptive easement and then adverse possession, but since they had not paid taxes on the land—a requirement for adverse possession—the trial court turned them down. However, the court did grant the Hansens an equitable easement.

The Court of Appeal on reviewing the case, however, found the Hansens to have been “negligent” in their actions, which nullified their claim for innocently using the land.

How a Knowledgeable Attorney Can Help

Easement cases involve many factors, and as the Hansens’ case shows, there are requirements for adverse possession, prescriptive easements, and equitable easements that may be hard to reach. If you’re involved in an easement dispute—or looking to buy property that could be subject to easement concerns—contact me at the Martinez Law Office, Inc. As a dedicated attorney, I proudly help clients with their real estate concerns in and around Santa Ana, California, and the counties of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego.