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Texas Supreme Court Defines Requirements for Easement of Necessity

Occasionally, a Texas landowner will own a piece of property that lacks access, or sufficient access, to a public road. Usually, the first thing the landowner should do is to negotiate with an adjoining landowner to see if the adjoining landowner will agree to an easement of some kind. However, on some occasions, the landowner finds themselves at the mercy of difficult or recalcitrant adjoining landowners or is simply unable to reach an agreement with adjoining landowners and is unable to obtain any kind of access easement. In that situation, one of the only options is to file suit and request that a court declare an “easement by necessity”.

In the case of the Staley Family Partnership Ltd. v. Stiles, the Texas Supreme Court reiterated an important requirement for this kind of easement.

This case involved three tracts of land that were originally part of a single land grant in Collin County, Texas from the State of Texas to Thompson Helms in 1853. In 1866, the land was separated into three portions by a Texas probate court:

1. The “Axia Helms” Tract, which was the northernmost tract,
2. The “James Helms” Tract, which lay south of the Axia tract, and
3. The “Frances Helms” Tract, which lay south of the James tract.

In the 1870s, Frances conveyed all of the Frances Helms Tract to James for except the tract now known as the Staley Tract. The Staley Tract has, since the 1866 grant, been bound on the east and south by a tributary of Honey Creek and on the west by Honey Creek. Honey Creek and its tributary form a “V-shape” of deep ravines along the Staley Tract. The northern section of the Staley Tract is bound by what is now the Stiles Tract. The Staley Tract is impassable to automobile traffic on all borders, except to the north, due to the creek and its tributary.

The Stiles Tract is the section of land previously owned by Axia and James Helms, north of the Staley Tract. The Staley Tract was acquired in 2009 by the Staley Family Partnership. After acquiring the land, the Staley Partnership sued the owners of the Stiles Tract seeking a declaratory judgment for an easement that runs from the northern section of the Staley Tract through the Stiles Tract to County Road 134 (CR134).

The evidence at the trial indicated that a public road near the current CR 134 may have existed in the 1930s, but there is no evidence of a public road through the Stiles Tract or along its border earlier than 1930. Since there was insufficient evidence that a necessity existed when the three tracts were severed, the trial court ruled for Stiles and denied the Staley Partnership an easement by necessity. The Staley Partnership appealed.

On appeal in the Fifth Court of Appeals, Staley argued that it was entitled to an easement by  necessity.  The Court of Appeals opinion affirmed the trial court, stating that “there is no credible evidence to show the necessity of access across the Stiles Tract to a public road in the current location of CR 134 at the time of severance. Applying the appropriate standard of review, we conclude Staley failed to establish as a matter of law the essential element of existence of the necessity at the time of the severance”.

According to Koonce v. Brite Estate, 663 S.W.2d 451, 452 (Tex.1984)  whether a party is entitled to an easement by necessity is a question of law, and questions of law are reviewed de novo (i.e., anew).  As described by the Texas Supreme Court, to establish an easement by necessity, the party seeking the easement bears the burden of proving three elements:

1. Unity of ownership of the dominant and servient estates prior to severance;

2. There is a present necessity of a roadway for the dominant tract; and

3. There was an historical necessity for the roadway, that is, the necessity existed at the time of the severance of the dominant and servient estates by conveyance to the Helms heirs.

Staley met the unity of ownership requirement, since all three tracts were originally owned by Thompson Helms. However, the Texas Supreme Court determined that Staley failed to show that, at the time of the severance of their tract from the Stiles Tract, there was a necessity for an access easement across the Stiles Tract to a public road. Thus, Staley lost again in the Texas Supreme Court.

One of the aspects of this case that is interesting is what is not said in the opinions. Many adjoining landowners are agreeable to giving a landlocked neighbor an easement. I can’t help but wonder if the Staley family was especially difficult to deal with, and could not reach an agreement with Stiles. I also wonder if the Staley family may have filed suit without even trying to obtain an agreement from Stiles. Finally, it is probably a good bet that Staley knew the property was landlocked when they bought it. Most properties are conveyed using a title company (or should be, at least). The title company will require evidence of access, and if they do not receive this evidence, will create an exception in the title policy for lack of access. Most lenders will not loan money for the purchase of land that is landlocked. Of course, we don’t know whether the Staley family used a title company for this purchase, or whether they had a lender that would have required access. If they did not use a title company for their purchase of this property, or if they bought the property without using a title company, or if they knew there was no access and just bet the come that they could get access by agreement or through a court, then they really brought this problem on themselves.