An interesting but seldom-used doctrine in property law is that of the easement by necessity. Cases citing this doctrine arise most commonly in the 1800s and early 1900s when undeveloped land was being subdivided and sold. But the easement by necessity still arises from time to time in certain circumstances. Modern courts approach this remedy with a skeptical and strict eye. This is clearly shown in the recent case of Gronda v Hawkins.
In Gronda, Plaintiffs owned a parcel of landlocked recreational property. For over 50 years, plaintiffs and their predecessors accessed the parcel by crossing federal lands. However, the federal permit expired, and the United States Forestry Service closed the trail used to access Plaintiffs’ property for safety concerns. Instead, the USFS recommended that Plaintiffs pursue access through a route over the property to the east, owned by Defendant. Plaintiffs did so by filing a lawsuit seeking an easement by necessity. There was a route that runs approximately through the center of Defendant’s property that is also known as “the forest trail.” Defendant established various deer blinds along this forest trail.
In the lawsuit, Plaintiffs requested the most convenient route of access. Specifically, they sought to use the forest trail along Defendant’s property that ended near his cabin. Plaintiffs wanted to continue the route from the forest trail to their property line because it was allegedly the most convenient and economical access. Defendant opposed an easement by necessity along the forest trail, citing privacy concerns as well as a disruption of the use of the property for hunting, skiing, and other recreational activities with friends and family. Defendant proposed granting plaintiffs an easement by necessity along the northern border of his property. However, plaintiffs questioned the feasibility of constructing a route at that location because of regulated wetlands.
The trial court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for summary disposition. It concluded that an easement by necessity was required because Plaintiffs’ property was landlocked. However, it ordered that Plaintiffs could place the easement over the proposed northern or southern borders of Defendant’s property and did not grant the easement by necessity over the existing forest trail through the center of Defendant’s property.
On appeal, the only issue raised was the location of the easement by necessity. Plaintiffs again requested access to the forest trail. Defendant argued that the easement should only be granted as to the northern or southern borders of his property. The Court first noted that Plaintiffs’ property was landlocked and thus an easement by necessity was proper. The Court then noted Michigan law’s requirements that “[t]he use exercised by the holders of the easement must be reasonably necessary and convenient to the proper enjoyment of the easement, with as little burden as possible to the fee owner of the land.” “Where there are several ways to a land-locked tenement, the owner of the servient tenement can select the way which the land-locked owner shall use, provided the way selected be reasonably convenient.”
In other words, the easement by necessity holder may only make use of the easement in such a way that imposes the smallest possible burden on the property owner. Applied to the facts of the case, the Court concluded that the trial court was correct in refusing to allow Plaintiffs to use the forest road through the center of Defendant’s property.
While Plaintiffs showed that using the northern or southern borders of Defendant’s property for their easement would be expensive and inconvenient, they failed to show how it would be so inconvenient and expensive as to justify the intrusion onto Defendant’s forest road. Further, Defendant had presented strong evidence of how it would be disruptive and unreasonable for Plaintiffs to cut through the center of his property.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. Plaintiffs were entitled to an easement by necessity. But they were not entitled to build their road through the center of Defendant’s property despite the costly alternatives.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience with property law issues such as easements. If you have any questions regarding easements, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.