SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Citation463 P.3d 654
Docket NumberNo. 20190034,20190034
Parties SRB INVESTMENT CO., LTD and Gary Tooke, Appellants, v. Dale Orson SPENCER, et al., Appellees.
Decision Date08 May 2020

V. Lowry Snow, W. Devin Snow, St. George, for appellants

Clifford V. Dunn, Michael C. Dunn, St. George, for appellees

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

On Direct Appeal

Chief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court:

Introduction

¶1 SRB Investment Company2 sought access to its property through a prescriptive easement crossing land owned by the Spencer family. The district court determined that SRB had established this easement. But the court prohibited SRB from using the easement for any reason other than to access the SRB property for the purposes of ranching or farming. Because the court improperly focused on the purposes for which SRB's land would be used, rather than on the purpose for which the relevant portion of the Spencer property would be used, we reverse its determination and remand for a new determination regarding the scope of the easement. On remand, the court should take a flexible approach to determining the scope of the prescriptive easement—an approach that permits changes in the use of the parties’ respective property rights so long as those changes do not materially increase the burden imposed on either party.

Background

¶2 For well over twenty years, Norman Carroll used a road crossing real property owned by the Spencer family to access his own property. But in 2005, Mr. Carroll sold his property to SRB Investment Company. Although Mr. Carroll had principally used his property only for ranching and farming, SRB purchased the property with the intent to use it as a cabin vacation spot for its members.

¶3 Some time after SRB purchased the property, the Spencers objected to SRB's continued use of the portion of the road crossing the Spencer property. In response, SRB filed this action in order to regain access to the property.

¶4 After a one-day bench trial, the district court determined that SRB had acquired a prescriptive easement across the Spencer property. And, citing Utah case law, it held that the scope of the easement needed to be limited to its historical usage. In determining the easement's historical usage, the court found that "almost all of the relevant evidence" came from Mr. Carroll's deposition testimony.

¶5 Based on Mr. Carroll's testimony, the court held the following: (1) the easement was limited to "vehicular travel in daily uses for farming and ranching purposes, and uses at random times for random reasons" and (2) "[m]ultiple house buildings on the SRB Parcel are outside the scope of the prescriptive easement's historic[al] usage, but a camp or other [temporary] building or vehicle that is ancillary to farming and ranching used on the SRB Property would not be outside the scope." SRB appealed this determination. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

Standard of Review

¶6 In determining whether a prescriptive easement exists, a district court must make a number of factual findings regarding the duration and nature of the easement's use. The court must also correctly identify the legal standard governing the creation of a prescriptive easement. And it must correctly apply that legal standard to its factual findings. In reviewing these determinations on appeal, we review the district court's conclusions regarding the legal standard for correctness.3 And we review the court's factual findings, including how the court applied those findings to the correct legal standard, for an abuse of discretion.4

Analysis

¶7 SRB argues the district court erred in defining the scope of the easement based on how SRB used its own property during the prescriptive period. Instead, SRB argues that the court should have defined the scope of the easement based on how SRB used the Spencer's property during that period. We agree and remand this case to the district court for a new determination, consistent with the legal principles outlined in this opinion, regarding the easement's scope.

¶8 We have long held that "the extent of a prescriptive easement is measured and limited by its historic[al] use during the prescriptive period."5 The district court cited this rule in limiting the scope of the easement across the Spencer property. But, in so doing, the court limited the use of the easement to "vehicular travel in daily uses for farming and ranching purposes, and uses at random times for random reasons." It also appeared to limit SRB's use of SRB's own property by stating that "[m]ultiple house buildings on the SRB Parcel are outside the scope of the prescriptive easement's historic[al] usage, but a camp or other [temporary] building or vehicle that is ancillary to farming and ranching uses on the SRB Property would not be outside the scope." By limiting the scope of the easement in this way, the district court erred.

¶9 The district court erred because it erroneously equated the "purpose" for which SRB's property—the dominant estate—was used with the "extent" of the easement's historical use over the Spencer property—the servient estate. This is inconsistent with basic principles underlying the prescriptive easement doctrine.

¶10 When the principles underlying the prescriptive easement doctrine are considered, together with our case law, an important distinction between a prescriptive easement's "type" (or "purpose") and a prescriptive easement's "scope" emerges. Under this distinction, a prescriptive easement's type should be categorized broadly based on the general purpose for which the easement over the servient estate has historically been used. And a prescriptive easement's scope should be defined with particularity based on the nature, or extent, of that historical use. We discuss this distinction in greater detail before applying it to the facts of this case.

I. There is an Important Distinction Between a Prescriptive Easement's Type and Its Scope

¶11 "It is elementary that the use of an easement must be as reasonable and as little burdensome to the servient estate as the nature of the easement and its purpose will permit."6 Although our case law has never explicitly distinguished between a prescriptive easement's type—as defined by its historical purpose —and its scope—as defined by the nature of its historical use—such a distinction is implicit in our previous prescriptive easement cases and is consistent with well-established prescriptive easement principles.

¶12 Our case law clearly establishes that there are different types of prescriptive easements.7 The most common type of prescriptive easement is an access easement, or, in other words, an easement for ingress or egress across the servient estate.8 But we have also recognized other types of easements, such as easements for the purposes of recreation,9 logging,10 and irrigation.11 And we have explained that an easement "for one purpose gained by user cannot be turned into a[n] [easement] for another purpose if the latter adds materially to the burden of the servient estate."12 For this reason, the "first step in determining whether the holder of an easement is entitled to make a particular use challenged by the owner of the servient estate is to determine whether the use falls within the purposes for which the [prescriptive easement] was created."13

¶13 But the purpose for which a prescriptive easement was created is not the only limiting factor in defining the easement. We have also explained that the extent of a prescriptive easement is measured and limited by the nature of the use made during the prescriptive period.14 Utah courts often refer to this second form of limitation as the "scope" of the easement.15

¶14 Thus our case law establishes that a prescriptive easement should be defined generally by type—based on the purpose for which it was acquired—as well as specifically by scope—based on the nature and extent of the easement's historical use. But even though an easement's type and scope both work to define the extent of the rights enjoyed through a prescriptive easement, the limitations imposed by the type and scope should be analyzed separately.

II. The Type of a Prescriptive Easement Should be Defined Broadly Based on the Purpose for Which the Servient Estate was Used

¶15 Because a prescriptive easement acquired "for one purpose ... cannot be turned into a[n] [easement] for another purpose if the latter adds materially to the burden of the servient estate,"16 the "outcome in any particular case" may hinge on "the level of generality with which the purpose is defined."17 So, for example, the purpose of the easement in this case could be broadly defined as an easement to access the dominant estate. Or, as the district court's order illustrates, it could be narrowly defined as an easement to access the dominant estate for farming and ranching activities. But our case law suggests that the type, or purpose, of a prescriptive easement should be defined broadly.

¶16 For example, in describing the purpose of an access easement, we typically characterize the purpose as being to access another property without further identifying the purpose for which that property was being accessed.18 Likewise, we have defined easements used for "recreational purposes" without specifically identifying the types of recreation.19 And we have discussed an easement for "the purpose of discharging" water "across the premises of the plaintiffs" without discussing the purpose for which the water would be used.20 So our case law suggests that when describing the easement's purpose we need only do so in broad terms.

¶17 Accordingly, courts should construe the general purpose of a prescriptive easement broadly. And once this general purpose is determined, any use of the servient estate that is for another purpose is impermissible unless the...

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4 cases
  • M.N.V. Holdings LC v. 200 S. LLC
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • July 9, 2021
    ...courts may apply such principles to limit the scope of the defined easement or otherwise accommodate the servient estate, see SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer , 2020 UT 23, ¶¶ 21 n.32, 22, 463 P.3d 654 ("Even though courts will almost always consider the physical dimensions of the land used, as well......
  • M.N.V. Holdings LC v. 200 S. LLC
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • July 9, 2021
    ...the scope of the defined easement or otherwise accommodate the servient estate, see SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer, 2020 UT 23, ¶¶ 21 n.32, 22, 463 P.3d 654 ("Even though courts will almost always consider the physical dimensions of the land used, as well as the frequency and intensity of that use......
  • M.N.V. Holdings LC v. 200 S. LLC
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • June 10, 2021
    ...courts may apply such principles to limit the scope of the defined easement or otherwise accommodate the servient estate, see SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer, 2020 UT 23, ¶¶ 21 n.32, 22, 463 P.3d 654 ("Even though courts will almost always consider the physical dimensions of the land used, as well ......
  • Harrison v. Spah Family Ltd.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • May 8, 2020
    ...UT App. 56, ¶ 25, 397 P.3d 686 (explaining that "mere acquiescence" does not rebut the presumption of adverseness).41 2020 UT 23, ¶ 10, 463 P.3d 654.42 Id.43 Whitesides v. Green , 13 Utah 341, 44 P. 1032, 1033 (1896) ; see also Big Cottonwood Tanner Ditch Co. v. Moyle , 109 Utah 213, 174 P.......

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