A squabble between neighbors over an easement for a driveway has been in and out of Napa County courts for a quarter of a century and, thanks to a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal, is headed back for yet another hearing.

An easement is “a restricted right to specific, limited, definable use or activity upon another’s property, which right must be less than the right of ownership.”

The dispute recently decided by the Court of Appeal (McBride v. Smith) has its roots in a court case filed in 1993 involving homes along Spring Street in St. Helena. The owner of 1670 Spring sued the owner of 1664 Spring, asking for an adjustment to the borders of her property, which the court granted.

A third home, at 1660 Spring, which adjoins 1670 and part of 1664, would eventually become entangled in the case.

Later in 1993, the owner of 1670 granted the owner of 1664 an easement over a 12-foot wide strip of land as “a secondary right-of-way …for the purpose of emergency ingress and egress” from the neighbor’s home.

By 2004 all three properties had been sold to new owners. In that year the Vickers family, at 1660, granted the McBride household, at 1664, a “driveway easement” on the border of the 1660 property for “vehicular and pedestrian ingress, egress and access.” Vickers retained the right to use the driveway strip as long as they did not unreasonably interfere with McBride’s use.

Thus McBride’s property had both the “driveway easement” and the “secondary access easement."

In January of 2014, McBride sued Smith, the owner of the 1670 property. McBride said she had used the shared driveway for access to her 1664 property, but Smith had recently “erected permanent fixtures in said driveway,” including a heavy post and chain, that blocked her access.

McBride’s claims included trespass, by interfering with her “exclusive possession” of the disputed property; forcible detainer, by “physically prohibiting” her from using her land; prescriptive easement, resulting from McBride’s open and notorious use of the of the driveway without the consent or permission of the Smiths; and nuisance, resulting from the Smiths’ interference with McBride’s use and free passage across “her roadway and easement areas.”

By this time, McBride had also acquired ownership of the home at 1660 Spring.

The trial court repeatedly denied various claims by McBride, resulting in her amending her complaint four times over the next 18 months. Her streamlined claims focused on the barrier allegedly blocking her use of the secondary easement, and her alleged right to use the secondary access easement for “primary access purposes.”

She said she had this right because she had used the easement that way for at least five years, “openly, notoriously, under claim of right, and on a daily basis.”

The trial court again ruled against McBride, issuing a demurrer – essentially a ruling that the factual allegations in her complaint were insufficient to provide a legal basis for a lawsuit. The court also awarded Smith more than $147,000 in costs.

McBride appealed, and got a narrowly favorable ruling from the Court of Appeal.

The higher court rejected some of McBride’s claims as legally unsound.

But it said her claim that the post erected by the Smiths interfered with her “free use” of the Secondary Access Easement was a factual matter to be decided at trial, not by demurrer.

Her claim that she used the secondary easement daily for five years, thus giving her expanded rights beyond those in the recorded easement, also should be decided at trial, it said.

The appellate justices remanded the case to the Napa County Superior Court. Both parties were required to bear their own expenses of appeal.

In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He was silent, perhaps for good reason, on the subject of easements.

By Laurie Murphy