Bad Fences Make Bad Neighbors: Homeowners and Easement Rights

by Ryan McLane

Everyone has heard some form of the proverb "good fences make good neighbors." Robert Frost used this wording in his poem, Mending Wall. The point (of the proverb, not necessarily the poem) is that privacy and separation, in proper doses, can foster good relations between people living in close proximity to one another. A recent Kentucky Court of Appeals opinion dealing with a dispute between neighbors over a shared driveway called to mind the "good fences" proverb.

In Baker v. Hines, 2012-CA-340 (issued 7/19/13), two neighbors shared a common driveway for access to their residences. The driveway was located on Hines' property, but Baker had the legal right--called an easement--to traverse it for access to her property. Baker memorialized the easement in the deeds of record. Trouble arose when Hines sought: (a) to build a fence on the edge of the easement; and (b) to charge Baker for past and future costs of maintaining and repairing the driveway.

Baker sued and argued that allowing the fence would restrict her use and enjoyment of her easement. Specifically, she claimed that, although she may be able to have ingress and egress from the rear of the property, the fence would block her access to the front and side of her home. Baker further argued that forcing her to contribute to Hines' expenditures on his own property, even if on a joint driveway, would essentially give Hines a "blank check" for improvements.

On appeal, Baker ultimately prevailed on the fence issue but lost on the issue of contribution to maintenance. In so deciding, the Court of Appeals held that the prospective fence would improperly restrict Baker's use of the entirety of the easement and infringe on her right to full use and access to her property. The Court further held that where no written agreement exists as to the apportionment of the costs of maintaining an easement (like a joint driveway) such costs should be equitably divided between the two homeowners. The Court explained that the rule does not provide a "blank check" because expenditures remain subject to a reasonableness standard.

Easements can be a complicated aspect of property law. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals' decision in Baker v. Hines takes a logical and fair approach to a common dispute between neighboring homeowners. The hidden lesson in the Baker case, however, is that the entire dispute could have been avoided had the parties been more specific and careful in preparing the original written easement. That is, the neighbors could have addressed how costs would be divided and whether fences or other structures could be built in the language of the recorded easement itself.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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