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I’ll be back (on your property): Can an easement be terminated?

9/21/2015 | Real Estate Blog

We have posted about easements many times before — our series last summer, “Dune Look Now,” is just one example. Landowners use easements as a way to settle property disputes without anyone having to sell. Private companies, individuals, the government and every other property owner use easements for all types of land uses. A government may need an easement for road construction; a power company may need an easement to gain access to power lines; a homeowner may need an easement to access his home from the main road. Easements allow a certain amount of flexibility in the sometimes rigid area of real estate law.

A quick recap of what we’re talking about: An easement is a legally protected interest in another person’s property. A “dominant estate” with an easement has the right to use or control a “servient estate’s” land — as well as the area above and below it — for a specific purpose. The purpose is generally carefully defined, and the purpose may not violate the servient estate’s property rights.

While it may sometimes look as if an easement has a public use, it cannot. For example, a public utility strings power lines across a farmer’s field. The electricity is available to the public (for a price, of course), but the power company alone has control of that strip of the farmer’s land. Or, a city needs to construct a bike lane along a main road, but the new lane will only be wide enough if the city borrows a strip of land from each property owner along the route. The public has access to the bike lane, but the city is the dominant estate; the city alone controls those strips of land.

As we said, though, the city does not have carte blanche with that land. The property owners will likely have made sure that the easement is only granted for the city of Philadelphia to use as a bike lane. If the city decides to use the lane for large trucks instead, the property owners can object: The city has violated the terms of the agreement.

That’s not quite the same thing as terminating the easement, though. What happens if the city abandons the bike lane project?

We’ll explain in our next post.

Source: Summary of Pennsylvania Jurisprudence 2d – Property, ยง 18.1 “Easements: Definition of easement,” Mary Ellen West, database updated September 2015, via WestlawNext