“Easement by Plat” Applies to Easements over Private Roads
On May 6, 2011, The Utah Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Oak Lane Homeowners Association v. Griffin, 2011 UT 25. The case addresses the issue of whether a deed that references a recorded plat gives rise to an easement over a private road. The Supreme Court held that “an easement by plat arises over either a public or a private road.” (Emphasis in original) Id ¶13. The case also affirms the proposition that maintenance of a private right of way “should be distributed between dominant and servient tenements in proportion to their relative use of the road, as nearly as such may be ascertained.” Id. ¶21.
An “easement by plat” over a private right of way is presumptively created. There can be no evidence of abandonment of the easement and three specific conditions must be met: 1) the landowner must own property abutting the road in which the easement is claimed; 2) the deed conveying title to the property must reference a recorded plat; and 3) the recorded plat must show the road abutting the property.
In the Oak Lane case, the owners of five lots in a subdivision filed a plat with the city creating the Oak Hills Subdivision. The plat showed a public road running along the east side of the subdivision and a private road (which became Oak Lane). Lots 1, 3, 4 and 5 were accessible only by Oak Lane. Lot 2 was accessible via the public road as well as Oak Lane. Alpine City accepted the plat, although the plat did not conform with the city’s zoning ordinances then in effect.
Twelve years after the plat had been filed (with title to Lot 2 being owned by two intervening property owners), the Griffins acquired title to Lot 2. The deed conveying title to the Griffins contained the language that it was “[s]ubject to easements, covenants, conditions and restrictions of record.” The Griffins continuously used Oak Lane for ingress and egress to Lot 2 for the next fifteen years, after which time, the owners of Lots 1, 3, 4 and 5 decided to form an Association to manage and maintain Oak Lane.
The Griffins declined to join the Association and asserted they were entitled to continue to use Oak Lane to access their property. At the request of the Association, the two prior intervening owners of Lot 2 quitclaimed whatever interests they might hold in Oak Lane to the Association. The Association then placed boulders on Oak Lane to prevent access by the Griffins to Oak Lane from Lot 2. The Griffins sued.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Griffins. After an appeal and a remand, summary judgment was again granted in favor of the Griffins on the grounds that “an easement was created over the private lane, contained in the subdivision, for all those property owners who abut the lane.” Id ¶6. The Association again appealed, claiming the ruling erroneously created a new type of easement – an “easement by plat.” The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court ruled that pursuant to their deed, the Griffins owned a private easement over Oak Lane appurtenant to Lot 2. The Supreme Court noted that “[T]here is ample support for the creation of such an easement [an easement by plat] over public roads. We see no reason to distinguish between public and private roads for the purpose of creating an easement by virtue of a dee’s reference to a recorded plat.” (Emphasis in original). Id. ¶8.
The Association argued that affidavits procured from the prior owners showed that they “understood that Oak Lane was a private road” and they could use it “only with permission. The Supreme Court held that those statements were not proof of abandonment or intent of abandonment. Additionally, the Griffins appeared to have used Oak Lane continuously since their purchase of Lot 2 [15 years].
The Association also argued that because Oak Lane was never a public road, no public easement ever existed, so no private easement could pass to the Griffins as appurtenant to their Lot. The Supreme Court rejected this claim, stating that the case law relied on by the Association merely stood for the proposition that “for either type of easement to “survive the other, the easements must be (1) held contemporaneously and (2) not abandoned after one or the other is extinguished.” Id. ¶16.
The Association next argued that a private road is equivalent to a vacated public road. The Supreme Court again disagreed with the Association’s claim, citing prior case law holding that subsequent abandonment of a public right-of-way has no effect on a private easement owned by an abutting landowner. The fee is still encumbered by any easements that previously existed over the vacated road. Id. ¶18, 20.
The final argument of the Association was that it would be “inequitable” to allow the Griffins to use Oak Lane without contributing to the cost of its maintenance. The Supreme Court agreed, stating “the upkeep of Oak Lane ought to be determined by proportionate use.” Id. ¶22. The Association was not precluded by the ruling from seeking such a remedy.