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Introduction

On January 28, 2020, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a published opinion in Smith v Straughn, __  Mich App __; __ NW2d __ (2020) (Docket No. 345391), holding that a landowner can install a gate across an easement so long as the gate is not erected for the purpose of interfering with another’s use of the easement and the gate does not actually interfere with the use of the easement. The Michigan Court of Appeals utilized a reasonableness-under-the-circumstances test that will be relied on in future disputes between fee owners and easement holders as to whether a fee owner’s use of the easement interferes with the easement holder’s use.

Background

Ralph Steven Smith and Sue Smith purchased property in Niles, Michigan and eventually divided the property into five parcels (Parcels A, B, C, D and E). The Smiths lived on Parcel E and created a 66-foot easement across Parcels B, C, D and E, including a 14-foot gravel bed, so they could access the other parcels. The Court of Appeals does not provide a diagram illustrating the property and the easement; however, we provide one below for visualization purposes only:

Joseph Straughn later bought Parcel C subject to the easement. Straughn experienced a break-in and theft at his house on Parcel C and asked the Smiths for permission to install a gate along the southern line of his parcel, including across the easement. Though the record differed as to whether the Smiths consented, Straughn eventually installed a 7-foot-tall and 400-foot wide wooden fence along the southern line of his parcel, including across the easement, with two doors that rolled open beyond the width of the 14-foot wide roadbed in the easement. The Smiths complained that Straughn left the gate closed, requiring them to step out of their vehicles every time they needed to access Parcels A or B and open the gate. The Smiths eventually sued Straughn, seeking unimpeded access and use of the easement. The trial court denied the Smiths’ request and permitted Straughn to maintain his fence and gate across the easement, and the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed.

Analysis

The Michigan Supreme Court has held that an “easement holder’s use of the easement is limited to the purposes for which the easement was granted and must impose ‘as little burden as possible to the fee owner of the land,’ but the easement holder nevertheless enjoys ‘all such rights as are incident or necessary to the reasonable and proper enjoyment of the easement.” Id. at 2. In this case, Straughn is the fee owner of the land, and the Smiths are the easement holder.

The Court of Appeals centered its analysis on the principle that a “fee owner’s use of land on a servient estate is reviewed for reasonableness and whether that use is unreasonably inconsistent with the easement holder’s rights.” Id. at 3. This is a factual analysis and the Court of Appeals found many facts in favor of Straughn that his gate was not unreasonably inconsistent with the Smiths’ rights:

  • His security concerns after break-ins and thefts were reasonable and reasonably addressed by the fence and gate. Id. at 3.
  • The gate was easy to open. The trial court itself conducted a site visit “and personally determined that it ‘could easily move the gate’ itself.” Id. at 2-3. Moreover, the Smiths also easily opened the gate at the trial court’s site visit, despite the Smiths’ claims they could not. Id. at 3.
  • The gate still permitted the Smiths to use the easement for ingress and egress purposes across their parcels. Id. at 2.
  • It was not unreasonable for the gate to be closed or for the Smiths to have to exit their vehicles to open the gate as the Smiths could still use the easement. Id. at 2-3.
  • While the easement itself was 66-feet wide, the actual roadbed was only 14-feet wide and the gate opened 19.5-feet wide, still permitting the Smiths to use the roadbed to access their parcels. Id. at 3.
  • Straughn had offered to mechanize the gate, which the Smiths’ rejected. Id. at 4. The trial court and Court of Appeals further took note that the Smiths also would not accept added counterweights to make the gate easier to open or removing the gate doors and just leaving the fence intact as other compromises. Id. at 1, n 2.

The Court of Appeals also commented that an easement does not need to reserve the right to install an unlocked gate to be permissible; however, the installation of a locked gate would require such a reservation.

Summary

Easements naturally create tension between the fee owners who own the land and the easement holders who are entitled to reasonable use and enjoyment of the easement. The Court of Appeals’ decision in Smith v Straughn reinforces the principle that while an easement holder is entitled to proper and reasonable use of the easement, this does not bar the fee owner from taking certain actions regarding the easement, especially if such action is reasonable and does not unreasonably interfere with the easement holder’s use. Smith v Straughn also provides a cautionary tale to easement holders who end up in a dispute with the fee owner and are rigidly opposed to any sort of compromise: Straughn presented the Smiths with at least three different options to ease their alleged burden caused by the gate; however, the Smiths refused all these options. Fee owners and easement holders caught in an easement dispute should carefully review their documents to determine the purpose and scope of the easement and review the facts on the ground to determine whether the fee owner’s use of the easement is reasonable or unreasonably interferes with the easement holder’s rights.

Kayleigh B. Long is an attorney with Hirzel Law, PLC and focuses her practice in the areas of appellate law, community association law and civil litigation. Ms. Long received her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies from Indiana University. Prior to attending law school, Ms. Long joined Teach for America, teaching kindergarten in Harper Woods, Michigan and southeast Washington, D.C., and received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Oakland University. Ms. Long then obtained her Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, where she graduated in the top 5 of her class and served as the Senior Executive Editor on the Indiana Law Review. Her law review note was selected for publication in the Indiana Law Review, and she recently had an article published in the Denver Law Review. She can be reached at (248) 478-1800 or klong@hirzellaw.com.