Deed Language Defines the Scope of a Reserved Easement

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Under California law, a grant deed is generally understood to transfer the entire fee title interest in real property, unless it expressly states otherwise.  (See, e.g., Civil Code sections 1105 and 1113.)  If the seller wants to reserve any rights in the transferred property (such as an easement), the reservation should be expressed in the grant deed.

When a property owner sells only a portion of the property, the grant deed will often reserve an easement for things like landscaping, access, rights of way, or parking.

Under Civil Code section 1069, reservations are interpreted in favor of the grantor/seller.  That interpretative presumption in favor of the grantor matters less when the express language of the grant deed is clear.  The plain language of the grant deed is the most direct reflection of the “true intent of the parties,” and will govern disputes that arise in the future.

An opinion recently published by California’s Sixth Appellate District — Pear v. City and County of San Francisco — shows just how important the language of an easement reservation can be.

Facts: seller reserves easement for agriculture and access roads; uses easement for parking lot

Plaintiffs’ grandparents owned property in Mountain View.  In 1951, the grandparents conveyed fee title to an 80-foot strip of their land to Defendants City and County of San Francisco (“City”).  The City obtained the strip of land to construct an underground water pipeline serving the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System.

The grant deed reserved certain rights in plaintiffs’ grandparents favor, including the right to use the surface of the property for agriculture and the right to construct roads “over and across” the pipeline area, as long as there was no interference with the pipeline.

Plaintiffs’ family used the easement for agriculture (an orchard with farm stand selling produce), access roads, and eventually … a parking lot for an adjacent retail store (which, by the time of trial, was a Target store).

Early friction between plaintiffs’ family and the City was resolved through a 1967 “revocable permit,” which allowed some parking usage by plaintiffs in exchange for monthly payments, indemnification, and insurance.  When the City attempted to raise the monthly permit payments in 2012, plaintiffs sued to “quiet title” to allow for their continued use of the easement as a parking lot.

Trial court: parking permissible based on extrinsic evidence

The trial court ruled in favor of plaintiffs, finding parking was a permissible use of the easement.

The court held that the plain language of the easement reservation did not clearly determine the issue, and turned to extrinsic evidence (including expert appraiser testimony) showing that in 1951, the parties mutually understood that residential or commercial development of the property was likely, and such development would require incidental parking.

The City appealed.

Court of Appeal: reversed; parking lot inconsistent with deed language

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that the parking lot was not “necessarily incident” to the easement interests expressed in the grant deed.

The court noted that parking could be allowed on the easement “only to the extent it is incident to the uses which are authorized” in the easement reservation, because “parking is not among the expressly authorized uses.”

The court held that the parking lot was not a use “incidental” to the expressly permitted access roads, concluding: “A parking lot is not necessary to the enjoyment of a road.”  The court continued: “While driveways may be authorized as incidental to the roads or streets expressly referenced …, the same cannot be said of a parking lot.”

The court acknowledged the extrinsic evidence suggesting the parties understood that residential or commercial development of the property was likely.  But those contemplated future uses did not mean that plaintiffs could use the property in ways that conflicted with the actual deed language.

Lesson

The express language of a deed reserving an easement will determine the scope of the easement.  The easement holder can use the property only for purposes expressly allowed by the easement language or incidental thereto.

[View source.]

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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