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Judgment affirmed for Ellettsville land owner in easement suit

November 30, 2018

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s entry of summary judgment for a landowner against the owner of the property’s adjacent lot when it found that Indiana’s common-law rule prohibited the unilateral relocation of fixed easements.

In 2011, Joseph DeSpirito obtained one of two adjoining lots that were previously one single parcel of land in Ellettsville, Indiana. DeSpirito obtained his lot, Lot 2, by a special limited warranty deed that did not explicitly mention a utility easement running through the adjacent Lot 1. In 2014, Richland Convenience Store Partners obtained Lot 1.

The next year, Richland requested permission from the Town of Ellettsville Plan Commission to move the utility easement on Lot 1, along with the private sewer line running beneath it, 15 to 20 feet south to increase the buildable area of Lot 1.

Despite DeSpirito’s opposition, the commission approved Richland’s request, and DeSpirito petitioned for judicial review.

A trial court found that DeSpirito, as owner of Lot 2, had a fixed utility easement through Lot 1 and held that the easement’s fixed location meant it could not “be changed by either party without consent of the other.” The trial court then granted DeSpirito’s motion for summary judgment and remanded to the commission with instructions to dismiss Richland’s petition unless DeSpirito agreed to it.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed but found the trial court’s cited caselaw involved “an easement by necessity” and thus did not apply. The appellate court then adopted the Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) Section 4.8 (2000). But the Indiana Supreme Court vacated that decision and chose to instead adhere to common law, which requires all affected estate-holders to consent to the relocation of a fixed easement.

Among other things, the Supreme Court found that “Indiana’s common law follows a bright-line rule that is easy to apply, in contrast to the restatement’s multifactor test, which leads to uncertain results.” The high court further explained that common law would settle expectations for property values, minimize litigation, avoid judicial takings and secure economically efficient outcomes.

“Property rights in Indiana are not so flimsy that they may be modified or eliminated if their exercise impedes what is thought to be a more productive or worthwhile use of land,” Justice Geoffrey G. Slaughter wrote for the court.

“Adopting the Restatement would not solve the bad-actor problem. It would simply empower a different party — the servient estate-holder — to act badly,” Slaughter continued. “There is no reason to believe servient estate-holders will pursue their own self-interest with any less gusto under the Restatement than dominant estate-holders under the common law. Thus, adopting the Restatement to thwart the dominant estate-holder that uses the easement as a shield would merely reassign property values to the servient estate-holder, and we see no point in that.”

The appellate court ultimately concluded that it would retain Indiana’s common-law rule prohibiting the unilateral relocation of fixed easements and reject the restatement, affirming entry of judgment for DeSpirito and against Richland and the Commission in Town of Ellettsville, Indiana Plan Commission and Richland Convenience Store Partners, LLC, 53S01-1709-PL-612.

 

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