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By M. Henry Walker
This case involves the appeal of a trial court’s judgment granting an equitable easement over rural property in Ventura County. Plaintiff Hinrichs originally owned two large parcels which he inherited from his mother. He grew up in a home located on the southern parcel but hadn’t lived there since moving to Alaska in the 1980s. He sold the southern parcel to a third party based on the belief that he still had access to the only public road servicing the area via an historic trail which first appeared on a federal survey map in 1868 and which traversed several neighboring parcels. He was wrong in this regard; the owners of the neighboring parcels denied him access over the historic trail meaning his northern parcel was actually landlocked.
Hinrichs sued several neighbors, claiming he had an easement which was appurtenant to the original land patent, that he had acquired a prescriptive easement, and that he was entitled to an equitable easement by necessity. The trial court rejected the first two theories but entered judgment in favor of Hinrichs on the third, creating an equitable easement by necessity. The location of the created easement, however, was not over the historical trail area previously used for ingress and egress but rather over a new indirect route which was less accessible due to the terrain. While portions of the newly created easement had existing driveways, in order for Hinrichs to use the judicially created easement he would be required to grade two new roadways to connect to the existing portions. The trial court applied the “balancing of hardships” test and determined this to be the best location because this location would only minimally interfere with the servient parcels.
Hinrichs appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying him an easement over the historic trail. The other parties appealed as well, claiming among other things that the trial court erred in creating a new easement where none had ever existed. The appellate court focused on the issue of whether a court can create an equitable easement by necessity where the party claiming the easement has made no prior use of the easement. On the latter issue, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that “the court may grant an equitable easement without there being a preexisting use by the landowner seeking the easement.” The appellate court reasoned that despite the holdings of several cases which recognize the imposition of an easement by necessity in the case of a “long-standing encroachment,” such an encroachment is not an absolute requirement for an equitable easement. Moreover, the court found no evidence that Hinrichs was negligent in creating the landlocked parcel because he had a reasonable belief that he had a right of way over the trail.
This case serves as a reminder that while the law recognizes a strong interest in preventing land-locked parcels, a trial court sitting in equity must balance the rights of all parties rather than focus solely on the rights of the party claiming the equitable easement. In other words, Hinrichs got his easement but can’t be heard to complain that the location was not over the best access route. Perhaps that’s why it’s called an easement by necessity rather than an easement by convenience.
Hinrichs v. Melton (2017) 17 C.D.O.S. 4217.