SRB Investment v. Spencer (SRB I)

May 8, 2020

2020 UT 23 (May 8, 2020)

Subsequent history at SRB Investment v. Spencer (SRB II), 2023 UT App 120

Background. SRB Investment Co. (SRB) purchased property to use as a cabin vacation spot for its members. Access to the property by prescriptive easement across the Spencer property had been established by the previous owner for ranching and farming purposes. When SRB began using the easement to access their property for recreational use, the Spencers brought suit challenging  SRB’s right to the easement based on the assertion that farming and ranching activities had ceased on the property. The district court determined that although SRB did have an easement across the  Spencer property, the easement could not be used for any reason other than to access the SRB property for the purposes of ranching or farming. SRB appealed.

Holding. The Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision, finding that it 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. The court held that in determining the scope of an easement, courts should take a flexible 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.

Determining the Type and Scope of an Easement. When evaluating the historical use of a prescriptive easement the “purpose” for which the dominant estate was used must not be equated with the “extent” of the use over the servient estate as these are two separate limiting factors to consider when determining whether a use is permissible.  The first factor is the “type” of the easement and the second factor is the “scope” of the easement. Although a prescriptive easement should be defined generally by both type and scope, each of these limitations is to be analyzed separately.

“Type” of Easement.  A prescriptive easement’s type is to be categorized broadly based on the general purpose for which the easement over the servient estate has historically been used. For example, the purpose of an access easement would be to access another property without further identifying the purpose for which that property was being accessed. Likewise, an easement may be for “recreational purposes” without identifying specific types of recreation. 

“Scope” of Easement. A prescriptive easement’s scope is defined based on the nature and extent of the historical use during the prescriptive period. The historical use limits the extent of the easement right granted as well as the easement’s physical boundaries. The prescriptive user may not enlarge the burden of the easement to be greater than what existed during the entirety of the prescriptive period. In determining scope, factors to be considered are the physical dimensions of the prescriptive use, the frequency and intensity of the use, and the effect of the use on the aesthetic and economic value of the property. The subjective purpose of the easement and the nature of the use of the dominant property may also be considered, but only if it is helpful in determining the nature of the burden on the servient property. Finally, courts should take a flexible approach that permits changes of use so long as those changes do not materially burden the servient estate or materially interfere with the prescriptive right.