Easement Improvements May Create Irrevocable Rights

Beware the irrevocable license. This is the lesson of Richardson v. Franc, a recent First District Appellate Court which found for the plaintiffs, granting them an irrevocable license to maintain landscaping improvements within the access and public utility easement across their neighbor’s property. The plaintiffs, James Richardson and Lisa Donetti, accessed their property by means of a 30’ wide easement crossing about 150’ of their neighbor’s property. The easement, which was for purposes of access and public utilities only, was improved with an approximately 12’ wide driveway. Over about 20 years, the plaintiffs enhanced the borders on each side with trees, landscaping, irrigation and lighting. They continued to tend to the landscaping, adding new plants and trees, and paying landscapers to maintain the area. 

The defendants, Greg and Terrie Franc, first objected to the landscaping within the easement in late 2010, 6 years after purchasing their property. Without notice to the plaintiffs, they cut the irrigation and electrical lines on both sides of the driveway, even cut the irrigation line supplying the plaintiffs’ property, and demanded the plaintiffs remove all landscaping and supporting systems from the easement within five days.

The plaintiffs responded by filing suit, seeking an irrevocable parol license, equitable easement, and declaratory and injunctive relief. In a decision last month, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling, which denied the request for an equitable easement, but granted an irrevocable license.

Licenses typically are revocable; they allow the licensee to perform an act or acts on the owner’s property. A license may become irrevocable when the owner repeatedly allows the licensee to perform such acts and when the licensee expends time and money on those acts with the full knowledge of the owner. 

Interestingly, Richardson the court cited Cooke v. Ramponi (1952) 38 Cal.2d 282 approvingly, but there the California Supreme Court found an irrevocable license for access purposes across the property of another. This was so, in large party, because the road at issue was the sole means of access to their property, and they had improved their property (along with the easement) in reliance on this access. The Richardson court even described the “paradigmatic case”: “a landowner allows his neighbor the right to use some portion of his property. . . knowing that the neighbor needs the right to develop his property. The neighbor then builds a house, digs an irrigation ditch, paves the right of way, plants an orchard, or farms the land in reliance on the landowner’s acquiescence. . .” 

While the plaintiffs here did not need the easement to develop their property, theRichardson court upheld the trial court’s finding in their favor of an irrevocable license. The defendants had not objected for 6 years to the improvements, nor had their predecessors for the previous 14 years. The plaintiffs had invested substantial sums, both in money and effort, in maintaining the improvements. But there was no finding, as in theCooke case, that the plaintiffs’ ability to use and enjoy their parcel was adversely affected by revoking the license. The plaintiffs needed the easement for access, but access to their property would not have been affected by revoking the license to maintain landscaping. 

The lesson here is that property owners purchasing property with an easement crossing through theirs should, as part of their due diligence, carefully evaluate any improvements situated within the easement. They may have to live with any improvements placed their by the easement owner, and, once they acquire property, should be careful about allowing any new improvements within such property. 

Please contact Thomas Davenport with any questions.