By: Keith J. Turner and Angelica J. Varela
Sometimes the development and use of property goes beyond the property line, such as driveways and landscaping improvements, which are called “encroachments.” (An “encroachment” is the extension of a building or other structure beyond the boundaries of the land on which it was rightfully constructed onto adjoining land, or into its airspace, without the permission or consent of the adjoining landowner.) Encroachments are often discovered when a land survey is done by a property owner when submitting a new property improvement, such as when a property owner wants to add a swimming pool or home addition. The law provides that such use and development can sometimes ripen into property rights; and, sometimes it does not. Some recent cases highlight that the analysis can be complex and it is important for property owners to timely assert their rights, or they risk essentially losing a piece of the land.
- Equitable easement doctrine: you may be stuck with an encroachment. California courts have discretionary authority to deny a landowner’s request to force removal of a neighbor’s encroachment and instead force the landowner to accept damages as compensation for the judicial creation of an easement over the trespassed-upon property if three elements are proven: (1) the trespass was “ ‘innocent’ ” rather than “ ‘willful or negligent,’ ” (2) the public or the property owner will not be “ ‘ “irreparabl[y] injur[ed]” ’ ” by the easement, and (3) the hardship to the trespasser from having to cease the trespass is “ ‘ “greatly disproportionate to the hardship caused [the owner] by the continuance of the encroachment.”
In Shoen v. Zacarias (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 16, the dispute was over 481 square foot flat patch of land between two hillside properties. When the defendant purchased her property in 2003, she thought the patch was on her property and populated it with outdoor furniture—a cabana, a chaise chair, tables, and stools; none of it is set in concrete. But in 2005, the plaintiff’s predecessor land surveyed the boundaries and discovered that the patch belonged to him, but told the defendant she could continue to use it for as long as he owned the property. However, in 2006, the plaintiff purchased the property and in 2011, she demanded demand that the defendant remove the furniture, even though the plaintiff could not reach the flat patch of land without a building a staircase that would cost $100,000 to build.
The trial court granted the defendant an equitable easement but the court of appeal reversed, holding that a trial court has the power to issue an equitable easement authorizing a trespasser to continue her trespass in exchange for paying damages, but only if, among other things, the hardship on the trespasser in ceasing the trespass is “greatly disproportionate” to the hardship on the land’s owner in losing use of the trespassed upon portion of her land. Because removing the furniture would only cost $275, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to an equitable easement because hardship was not “greatly disproportionate” on the defendant.
Shoen is important because the court rejected the lesser criteria of “balancing of conveniences” or “relative hardships” as the basis to determine equitable easement rights. Rather, the court held that the encroacher to prove that ordering removing of the encroachment would be “greatly disproportionate to the hardship caused [the owner] by the continuance of the encroachment.”
- Parole License: verbal encroachment agreements may be enforceable
An “easement” is generally defined as the right to use someone else’s property for a specific purposes, such as access, and an easement is considered to be interest in real estate, giving the holder a right to bring a suit for trespass or ejectment. Because it is an interest in the property itself, it is subject to the statute of frauds, so it must be granted in writing. In contrast a “license” allows its holder to perform some act on property of another, or use the property in some way. It gives the holder a personal privilege, but not an interest in the land itself. Licenses are usually revocable.
In Richardson v. Franc (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 744, the dispute was whether a neighbor exceeded the scope of an express easement for access and utility purposes over a shared driveway, buy installing and maintaining landscaping, irrigation, and lighting. The trial court ruled—irrespective of the terms of the easement—it would be inequitable to deny respondents an irrevocable license given their substantial investment of time and money on the landscaping and other improvements and the burdened property owner’s years of acquiescence.
Richardson is a major case because licenses are usually revocable, but the court held it was irrevocable and it held that it ran not only in favor of the present owners, but also to their successor-in-interest. Hence, the court granted essentially a permanent right that runs with the land, the way an easement does.
This case also makes the analysis more difficult and harder to predict outcomes in these neighbor vs. neighbor encroachment related disputes. The court in Richardson discussed in great detail all of the landscaping and other improvements that were made over the years and how the burdened property benefitted from letting the easement holder do all the work and pay for all the decades of landscaping and water bills. So having good evidence such as photos and receipts to build a case fairness and balancing the equities can be the key fact.