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Utility Easements, Explained

May 9, 2022

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5
Min Read
Workers fixing power lines.

An easement exists to give rights to one party for the use of another party's land for a specific purpose.

In the case of utility easements, local law provides utility workers with the right to access private property to gain access to infrastructure located therein. While it is not ownership over the property, it is access granted.

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Municipalities may need access to private property for purposes such as construction or maintenance of utilities such as:

  • Electric utilities that are within a personal property
  • Water or sewer lines and equipment
  • Gas lines
  • Telephone & fiber optic utilities
  • And others above or underground

Consequently, a utility easement upon creation by state or local law gives utility employees the right to access infrastructure located on private properties. 

It is not uncommon to find existing utility easements on a property or for a property to be encumbered when you purchase a home. These utility easements are, at times, in a category of affirmative easements since they provide utility companies legal access to private property. 

Utility Easements

Utility easements sound like more trouble than they are, but they can benefit the community and property owners.

Utility management is accessible due to this easement, and when a company has an issue that needs action, they will access your sewer lines, fiber optics, or cables. That does not mean companies can operate however they choose on your property, but they can do what is necessary for the betterment of utilities.

However, there are restrictions on what is permissible with the property in some cases. For example, if you intended to change shrubbery or plant trees that could alter access to utilities, that might be limited. Interfering with fiber optics or power lines is also not permissible under the guidelines of utility easements. 

Who Is Responsible For The Maintenance Of Easements/Rights-Of-Way?

The property owner is responsible for maintaining the area within easements or rights-of-way. However, if a company has significant water or sewer trunk lines or electric utilities that cross undeveloped regions, those will generally be the utility company's responsibility.

For the good of the community, clearing debris and impediments from the lines that could cause damage must be maintained by the owner. In addition, all utilities must remain accessible and unimpeded.

Easements should remain clear of impediments such as:

  • Tool sheds, barns, or garages
  • Decks
  • Treehouses and recreational equipment
  • Flagpoles
  • And even recreational vehicles that could impede access

What Determines Where Easements Are Located?

Utility easements are placed on land where a former or current owner has allowed the crossing of the property line with utility lines. These may include areas in and along streets where utility poles, cable boxes, water meters, etc., are placed. 

Appurtenant Easement

In an easement appurtenant, two properties exist and share space, and there are servient and dominant tenement estates. The dominant tenement property is often smaller than the servient estate. If your property, as the dominant estate, were landlocked with no point of ingress or egress to a public road, it would need to make use of land within the servient property for access. 

This easement type is effectively like a shortcut or a pass-through to access a utility or a public space. It effectively runs with a piece of property though it benefits a non-owner party.

 Private Easements

Private easements serve the same purpose as most other easements, though the property owner can generate or sell their rights to another party. For example, if your neighbor wants to set up their alternative fuel rig, you have the right to grant access or deny it if it requires access to your private land.

This is a more delicate area if future property owners can be affected. Whoever might purchase your home in the future would be subject to the terms of the easement. Therefore, it is best to add a check for private easements to your homework before buying a property. 

Easements by Necessity

Much like the title implies, an easement of this type is crafted when a property owner has no access to a public point of ingress or egress to a street or highway. This easement may have resulted from the federal government exercising its right of eminent domain, whereby it acquired private land for public use. 

Easements by necessity address a scenario when another party must access your land. Sometimes called access easements, they serve a collective interest to make the land productive. For example, if your neighbors required a right of way to access a road and needed to cross your property, an easement by necessity would fit the circumstance. 

Stopping this type of easement would produce unnecessary burdens to neighboring parties. As a result, property owners cannot control this easement. 

Prescriptive Easements

A right to property granted to someone who doesn't own the property is a prescriptive easement. It may be acquired by using an owner's land for a continuous and uninterrupted number of years.

Its acquisition is generally through what is defined as open and notorious use of the land. It results from a non-owner using the property in a hostile manner. State laws establish years of a prescriptive easement. If a neighbor encroached on your property for many years without interruption, they might have legal access to that property, despite its ownership. Failure to interrupt could be treated as an act of concession.

Acting quickly in response is vital in scenarios where trespassing is taking place.

An Easement’s Impact on Property Ownership

As the law requires, an easement can prevent owners' use of the property for specific purposes. Therefore, hindering or otherwise impeding the easement use is not permitted, though there are some benefits to easements.

If your new fiber optic installation is essential to your access to telecom services, then it is to your benefit. Utility companies can access the critical areas with greater ease due to the easement. However, easements are always to the use of the party to whom the rights have been granted. 

Title Research for Easements

Before buying a property, it is always vital to do a title search to know any easements that may exist. If a property with easements has not been sufficiently recorded, consulting with a real estate attorney may be your best recourse.  

Most easements cause no issue, but it is always best to know if they exist and the terms of their presence. Easements generally do not expire when property ownership changes, so do your due diligence in the home buying process.

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