“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but legal ambiguity is not,” declared the California Court of Appeal, embellishing with that literary flourish a fairly routine dispute over an easement – but one with an important lesson for property owners.

The case of Zissler v. Saville resulted from the unforeseen consequences of one neighbor years earlier doing a favor for another.

In 1994, George and Annette Corbett conveyed an easement to their Montecito neighbors, Peter and Kristi Lupoli, granting “access, ingress and egress to vehicles and pedestrians over Grantors’ real property from Green Meadows Road to Grantees’ real property.”

Peter Lupoli, a lawyer, drafted the easement. According to trial testimony, he assured the Corbetts that the easement, for an unpaved road 10 feet wide and 90 feet long, “would always be used lightly,” “sparingly and infrequently…in a non-offensive way,” so his gardener could get to the back of the Lupoli property a few times each month.

However, none of those limitations and conditions were mentioned in the easement they recorded

Fast forward to 1999, when James Zissler bought the Corbetts’ one-acre property. Fast forward again to  2013, when Patrick J. Saville purchased the Lupolis’ two-acre parcel for $4.7 million, intending to redevelop it as an estate property. He planned to demolish the existing home, garage and swimming pool, and construct several new buildings. That planned construction would mean 14,000 truck trips over the easement during an 18- to 24-month period, about 30 trips per day.

Zissler sued, seeking an injunction against Saville’s planned use of the easement, arguing that it far exceeded what was in the minds of those who originally drafted the easement.

He contended that “the permissible use (of the easement) is determined in the first instance by the intention of the parties,” and that after an easement has been used for a reasonable period of time, “the extent of its use is established by its past use.” Zissler asked the court to limit use of the easement to no more than 12 vehicle trips per year, and to bar its use for construction activity.

Saville countersued, asking the court  for “quiet title” to the easement consistent with his plans. He also said he might pave the dirt road across his neighbor’s property.

The Santa Barbara County Superior Court concluded that the easement was ambiguous because it was “silent on the subject of frequency of use of the easement, what vehicles are contemplated, or the purpose of its use.”

The trial court said that it is settled law that, when an easement is granted, “an exercise of the right, with the acquiescence and consent of both parties, in a particular course or manner, fixes the right and limits it to the particular course or manner in which it has been enjoyed.”  

It cited a ruling over a century ago which declared that an “Easement is restricted to its historic use and the purpose for which the Easement was originally granted.” The court noted that Kristi Lupoli testified that the purpose of the easement was to “allow limited and infrequent access” to their neighbor’s back yard by gardeners and caterers.

The court granted Zissler an injunction limiting Saville’s use of the easement to landscape maintenance and other incidental use, not for construction activity. It also said he could not pave the road.

Saville appealed. By the time the case reached he higher court his plans had changed. He no longer planned to use the easement for construction activity, but still intended to use it as a service entrance.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. An easement is subject to the same rules of interpretation as a contract, which generally means looking at the language of the agreement to determine the intent of the parties. “It is fundamental that the language of a grant of an easement determines the scope of the easement,” it said.

The 1906 case cited by the trial court referred to an easement in which the language was not specific, so interpretation was required to determine what use was allowed. In this case, the appellate court said, the easement was not unclear but instead very specific as to the location, width, length and use of the property “for ingress and egress” by people and vehicles.

“There is nothing objectively ambiguous about the easement,” it said. In addition, “since the parties to an express right-of-way easement presumptively contemplate ‘normal future development,’ such an easement will generally not be restricted to its historic use.”

As a subsequent purchaser of the property, Saville had the right to rely on the wording of the easement, and had no reason or obligation to look into the intent of those who drafted it.

The appellate justices sent the case back to trial court, instructing it to confirm that Saville can make reasonable use the easement.

The lesson here is that  easements should be clear, complete and unambiguous. In a dispute which may not even involve you, what may have been on your mind when you reached a friendly accord with your neighbor is likely to be far less important than what’s been recorded.

By Laurie Murphy