Idaho Real Estate & Development Law Update: In Idaho, an Easement Owner Has the Duty to Maintain the Easement, Even if the Underlying Landowner Uses It Too

by Stoel Rives LLP
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A recent case in the Idaho Supreme Court serves as a good reminder that Idaho takes a somewhat unique approach to allocating responsibility for easement maintenance. In Fletcher v. Lone Mountain Road Association, Docket No. 43741 (Idaho 2017), the Court restated the basic rule in Idaho: “The owner of the dominant estate has the duty to maintain the easement even when the servient estate landowner uses the easement.” In other states, courts may apportion the cost of repairs between the parties, but that is not the general rule in Idaho.

Before we dive deeper, it may help to have a little refresher on easements. An easement is simply a right to use the land of another, such as where a person has the right to use a driveway across a neighbor’s land. When such a right benefits a particular parcel of land, the benefitted land is referred to as the “dominant estate” and the burdened land is referred to as the “servient estate.” The owner of the land benefitted by the easement is the “easement owner.” A classic example is depicted in the drawing below, where the owner of Parcel A has an easement over Parcel B to get to and from the nearest public road:

In this example, the owner of Parcel A is the easement owner, Parcel A is the dominant estate, and Parcel B is the servient estate.

So, the Court in Fletcher is telling us that, generally, in Idaho, the owner of Parcel A will be responsible for maintaining the driveway, even if the owner of Parcel B uses it too. Courts in Idaho generally will not apportion the costs of maintenance between the two owners, as courts in other states may do.

Note that the duty of the owner of the dominant estate (Parcel A in our example) is limited. To learn more about that, we need to look at some older cases. In Walker v. Boozer, 140 Idaho 451 (Idaho 2004), the Court summarized the law as follows:

The duty of maintaining the easement rests with the easement owner (i.e., dominant estate), even when the servient landowner uses the easement. That duty requires the easement owner maintain, repair, and protect the easement so as not to create an additional burden on the servient estate or an interference that would damage the land, such as flooding of the servient estate. This duty to maintain does not mean that the easement owner is required to maintain and repair the easement for the benefit of the servient estate. … [A]bsent a showing that the easement owners’ maintenance of the easement created an additional burden or interference with the servient estate, the servient estate cannot dictate the standard by which the easement should be maintained, expend funds to maintain it to the level desired by the servient estate and then seek reimbursement for those expenditures and contribution for future expenditures from the easement owners.

Returning to our example above, the Walker case tells us that, while the owner of Parcel A has a duty to maintain the easement, he or she is not required to maintain it to whatever standard is desired by the owner of Parcel B. Rather, the owner of Parcel A is merely required to maintain the easement so as to not create an additional burden on Parcel B or an interference that would damage Parcel B. In the Walker case, the Court held that the owners of the servient estate (Parcel B) could not recover the cost of graveling the road from the owners of Parcel A, because they failed to prove that the manner in which the easement owners (Parcel A) maintained the easement resulted in the requisite burden, interference or damage to the servient estate (Parcel B).

To learn more, let’s look at a case where the easement owner failed to meet its duty. In Conley v. Whittlesey, 133 Idaho 265 (Idaho 1999), the evidence showed that the actions of the easement owner caused increased erosion, rutting on the surface of the road, sloughing of the hillsides along the road, and intrusion onto the servient estate of water and silt. As a result, the Court upheld a ruling that the easement owner must either surface the road or stop using it.

Note that people are always free to agree to a different allocation of responsibility. In the Fletcher case, for example, the Court found that the normal duties among the parties were altered by the recorded covenants governing their subdivision, so the Court applied the subdivision covenants instead of Idaho’s general rule. If two or more people are using the same easement area, it may be hard to show whose use is causing a problem. People in that situation will often be better off agreeing how to share maintenance duties and costs, rather than relying on Idaho’s general rule.

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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