Easements by Estoppel in Virginia

08/09/2018 by Authored by Law Clerk Daniel Stephens, with assistance of Attorney James R. Harvey

The theory of easements by estoppel may be an invaluable tool in a property dispute. Each of the many other theories available to a land owner to establish an easement comes with its own challenges. Express easements must be found in the deed or chain of title; easements by prescription require over twenty years of continuous and exclusive use with the acquiescence, but not the permission, of the other landowner; easements by prior use require that the prior landowner used the easement before the severing the property by selling a parcel; and easements by necessity require that the property have no other means of access. However, owners may often overlook another obvious theory of relief: that they reasonably relied on representations by the original seller that an easement exists.

Easements by estoppel provide a remedy to property owners who reasonably believed that an easement right was conveyed with the purchase of their land, only to learn later that no valid express right to use neighboring land existed. Virginia law requires satisfaction of four element before a court will recognize an easement by estoppel: (1) inducement; (2) reliance; (3) continued use or enjoyment of the easement; and (4) injury.[1] Therefore, an easement by estoppel may be established by proof that (a) the seller led the buyer to believe a valuable easement over the seller’s neighboring land would be conveyed to the buyer and (b) the buyer subsequently used the easement, only to later be denied that right.

The foundational case in Virginia law that provides a great example of facts supporting easement by estoppel is Oney v. West Buena Vista Land Company.[2]  In that case, the West Buena Vista Land Company (the developer) built a bridge across the North River, which separated the developer’s land in West Buena Vista from the center of town in East Buena Vista. The bridge substantially reduced travel time between the two, significantly increasing the value of the developer’s land. The developer included the bridge on the plat for the development and told buyers that they could use the bridge to access town. No express easement to use the bridge was included in the buyers’ deeds, however, so when the developer wanted to sell the bridge to someone who was planning on tearing it down, the landowners sued to defend the right they believed they had. The court held that the developer’s representations, which induced the owners to buy the land and subsequently use the bridge for access, and the resulting injury the owners suffered were sufficient to establish an easement by estoppel.

While Oney is an example of a situation in which the original seller of both parcels created an easement by estoppel, this remedy may also be available against subsequent purchasers. Representations in the chain of title or the plat, for example, may provide a subsequent purchaser with knowledge of the original developer’s or seller’s representations that are relied upon for the purchase. The important requirement is that the subsequent purchaser has actual or constructive knowledge of the original seller’s representations.[3]

Easements by estoppel are an important potential remedy protecting land owners from losing rights that influenced their decision to purchase property. Property disputes are highly fact specific, so it is important to understand all of the facts about the origin of a possible easement to pick the right cause of action. The simplest explanation, that the buyer relied upon the seller’s representations of an easement, may prove to be the winning strategy. For more information please contact James R. Harvey, Esquire at jharvey@vanblacklaw.com.

 

[1] Jones v. Beavers, 221 Va. 214, 219 (1980).

[2] Oney v. W. Buena Vista Land Co., 104 Va. 580 (1905).

[3] See e.g., Walters v. Smith, 186 Va. 159, 173 (1947).

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