COA rules for property owners in easement dispute with hunting club

A Dearborn County hunting club can’t use an easement to access its business, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled, affirming a judgment for adjoining property owners who claimed the club violated the terms of the easement.

David Martini and Theresa Farrell own neighboring properties in Dearborn County, both of which adjoin the 440-acre Blind Hunting Club. Pursuant to an agreement executed by prior property owners, the hunting club had an easement over the properties providing “an unrestricted right of ingress (and) egress” for “farm equipment, pedestrian and vehicular traffic to and from the Dominant Estate … .” The agreement also allowed for no more than two residences to be built on the 440 acres, which was the “dominant estate.”

In April 2017, the hunting club leased 150 acres of its land to Jeff and Brandon Feiss, who used the property to harvest corn and soybeans and to transport large farm equipment. After that lease ended, the club in 2019 leased all 440 acres of its property to Brian Lane, who used the land for a fee-based club to hunt birds and deer. Lane also used 150 acres to plant milo grain, which was cover for the birds to be hunted.

In November 2019, Martini and Farrell sued BHC, seeking declaratory judgment that the easement was “limited to farm and residential use” and that the agreement “specifically prohibt(ed)” use of the easement for the hunting business. BHC, however, argued the language of the agreement gave it “a broad general ingress and egress easement” and, even if it were limited, its business was consistent with that language.

The Dearborn Circuit Court entered summary judgment for Martini and Farrell, finding that the agreement allowed for farming on the land in question and/or building two houses.  A hunting operation, however, was “not contemplated by the framers of the Easement Agreement.”

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Tuesday in Blind Hunting Club, LLC and Brian Lane v. David Martini and Theresa Farrell, 20A-PL-1868. The panel agreed with the trial court that BHC’s operations did not fall within the farming or residential limits of the easement agreement.

“Indeed, the recitals provide that ‘there has long been an easement’ to the dominant estate ‘for access to farm homes.’ … And the recitals provide that the easement has been consistently referenced as ‘the farm privilege,’ as reserving a right of way ‘for farm privilege,’ or as a right to use the easement ‘from said farm to public road,’” Judge Edward Najam wrote Tuesday. “Those recitals show that the parties anticipated that the owner of the dominate estate would use the easement to access the property in order to farm it.

“Further, the parties’ course of conduct supports our conclusion that farming is an approved use of the easement,” Najam continued. “Indeed, the prior owners of the properties entered into the easement agreement in 2016. And from 2017 until early 2019, the Feisses used the dominant estate to engage in a commercial farming operating and used the easement to transport farm equipment to and from the property. That course of conduct, which is undisputed, is a reliable guide to determine the contract’s meaning, and we accept it as such.

“The operative language of the easement is ambiguous,” Najam wrote. “However, the recitals and the course of conduct are clear.”

Thus, despite the agreement’s use of the word “unrestricted,” BHC’s use of the easement was limited, the panel held, and BHC’s operations did not comply with those limits.

“Here, BHC is not using a tract of land to cultivate soil, produce crops, or raise livestock. Rather, BHC is using the property to grow a grain that Lane will not harvest and to invite paying members to hunt animals that Lane has not raised,” the panel concluded. “… In other words, contrary to BHC’s assertion on appeal, farming and hunting are not one and the same. Because BHC’s use of the property as a fee-based hunting club is not farming, it does not fit into one of the two stated purposes of the easement.”

“Accordingly, the trial court did not err when it concluded that BHC cannot use the easement to access the property for its fee-based hunting operation.”

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