Imagine that you let your neighbor occasionally take a shortcut across your property to get to a nearby state park. Then, sometime later, you realize that your neighbor’s Airbnb tenants are stomping along that pathway every week – and you can’t stop them.

A Mendocino County family found itself in that situation, and sued to exclude the unwelcome visitors. The California Court of Appeal recently told them they were out of luck. (Ditzian v. Unger.)

The case is the latest in a series of decisions that involve easements that allow the public to use private property despite the wishes of the property owners.

Jason and Lauren Ditzian own a home in the community of Fort Bragg, close to the sand dunes of MacKerricher State Park and a scenic stretch of the California coast. The Ditzians purchased the home in 2013.

They and the previous owner, a friend of Mr. Ditzian, testified at trial that they had walked to the dunes through property owned since 2006 by the Unger family, and through yet another neighbor’s land, on a regular basis since at least 1999.

In the Summer of 2015, the Ditzians began renting out their property via Airbnb, hosting 146 short-term rentals over the next two years, or about every five days.

Unger erected a fence that blocked the path to the dunes. Ditzian sued, asking the court to establish a “prescriptive easement” that would give them – and their guests – the right to cross Unger’s property to get to the park. (The adjacent tenant, who apparently did not object to the use of her land, was not involved in the dispute.)

The trial court ruled in favor of the Ditzians, saying they had shown that the use of the Unger property by them and their guests had met the criterion of being “open, notorious, continuous and adverse for an uninterrupted period of five years.”

This satisfied California’s statutory conditions for a prescriptive easement, which is the right to use or cross the real property of another, acquired by continued use for a specified period of time without the owner’s permission.The easement extended not just to the Ditzians, the trial court ruled, but to their guests and their Airbnb tenants as well.

Unger appealed, saying a state law barred granting the easement. He also argued that any easement should apply only to the Ditzians, and not include their Airbnb customers.

Unger pointed out that California Civil Code Section 1009 “provides that the public’s use of another’s property for recreational purposes will never ripen into a vested right,” or easement.

Section 1009 says that, because it is “in the best interests of the state to encourage owners of private real property to continue to make their lands available for public recreational use,” and because owners who allow “members of the public to use, enjoy or pass over their property for recreational purposes” risk loss of the property rights, “no use of such property by the public …shall ever ripen to confer upon the public … a vested right to continue to make such use permanently.”

The Appellate Court said Section 1009 did not apply to the dispute between Ditzian and Unger. The statute focuses on use of private land by members of the general public, the appellate judges said, while this case was about the use by an adjacent neighbor.

Thus the trial court did not err in granting the easement, the higher court ruled. In addition, it said, the easement across Unger’s land is “appurtenant” or attached to the Ditzian property, not to them as individuals, and therefore can be used by their Airbnb guests.

Unger was ordered to pay the costs of appeal.

This case is a reminder for property owners to control access to and across their land, and to be alert for seemingly harmless trespasses that could evolve into “adverse” possession by others. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well in California.

By Laurie Murphy