C-B-K Ranch, LLC v. Thomas

September 25, 2023

Utah Court of Appeals

2023 UT App 110 (click for full text of opinion)

The Utah Court of Appeals remanded a prescriptive easement case back to the district court, holding that the lower court applied the wrong legal standards in concluding that the easement holder had no right to replace a defective metal swing gate with an electronic gate.

C-B-K Ranch sued the owner of adjacent property to establish the existence of a prescriptive easement in favor of C–B-K to a road over neighboring property for ingress and egress to C-B-K’s property, which has historically been accessed through a large, metal swing gate, secured by chains and combination locks belonging to C-B-K and Trust. The gate is now defective, often dragging on the ground, which sometimes requires it to be lifted and carried in order to open, which has become increasingly difficult for C-B-K’s acting manager due to his age and health. 

After the parties stipulated to the existence of a non-commercial easement over the roadway for ingress and egress, the remaining issue for trial was whether C-B-K had a right to replace the existing gate with an electronic one. Following a bench trial where the district court heard from several witnesses, the court stated that the law was “clear” that C-B-K, as the dominant estate, could do whatever was necessary to enjoy the easement and keep it in repair, as long as it didn’t do something that unnecessarily inconveniences the subservient estate. The court concluded that while replacing the defective gate with an electronic one was something the manager wanted to do for his own convenience, this was not a question that the law looked at, which instead concerned itself with the servient estate’s inconvenience. Noting testimony about the neighbor’s concern with new technology possibly malfunctioning, being less secure, resulting in inconvenience from learning a new technology, the court ruled that C-B-K had a right to repair the fence while keeping the mechanisms the same, but the scope of the easement did not permit C-B-K to change the chain lock to an electronic system. C-B-K appealed. 

The Court of Appeals concluded that the district court had overlooked several components of the legal standard that applies when a dominant estate owner seeks to make changes to the use of an easement. The Appeals Court noted the rule that easement holders may make technological upgrades to property as long as not unreasonably burdensome to the servient estate. Finding an increased burden is not the end of the analysis. Courts are to take a flexible approach in determining the scope of prescriptive easements that permits changes so long as they do not materially burden the servient estate or materially interfere with the right. The appeals court did not note such a flexible approach by the district court, especially where it gave weight to burdens that were entirely speculative. The appeals court remanded to determine whether, if the district court finds the change will place a burden on the servient estate, it must then determine whether there is an accommodation that will meet the needs and interests of both parties in a way the renders the change a reasonable one.