At some point during your life as a property owner, you will likely receive a strongly worded letter from governmental authority or a neighbor stating that they have the right to access your property by utilizing an “easement” or a “right-of-way”. Sometimes you might not even get a letter before noticing a stranger wandering through your backyard or placing stakes in your lawn for a construction project. Worse yet, you might hire contractors to help you with improvement or addition plans, only to find out that your plans are heavily restricted by someone’s rights.
So, how can someone enter onto your property without you granting approval?
The answer could be that you, or a previous property owner, have already granted that approval. Your unexpected guest might have the right to be there through an express easement or a right-of-way.
An easement is a right of someone else to use or enter your land. Easements can be established expressly by a written grant or can be implied by actions taken over an extended time period. If there is an easement running across your property, you are considered to be “servient” and the other person benefiting from your land is considered to be “dominant”, even though you own the land. Perhaps the most widespread example is an underground utility easement.
In Maryland’s Montgomery and Frederick counties, there are several different types of public rights-of-way that may have been expressly granted to allow a governmental authority to enter or cross your land. Some common examples include:
- Public utility maintenance or future installation (e.g., water and sanitary sewer, storm drainage)
- Future planned road or sidewalk expansion projects
- Forest Conservation Easements
- Floodplain or wetland protection areas
- Dedicated neighborhood pedestrian paths
Whether an easement is granted to the privately-owned house next door, to the general public, or to a government authority, the scope of the grant can greatly affect your ability to use your land. The person holding the easement right is only entitled to use your land in a manner fairly contemplated by the express grant. Each easement comes with boundaries and the dominant person cannot exceed the scope of those boundaries, nor can they place additional restrictions against your use of your land. Likewise, you cannot unjustifiably obstruct the dominant person’s lawful use of an easement.
You should never “take someone’s word for it”, if you are told that your land is subject to an easement or if you are told that you cannot use an easement that you think you own. You are dealing with your property rights and one of these common wrongful acts could be occurring:
- The benefited (dominant) user could be unlawfully extending or modifying the scope of its granted rights.
- The burdened (servient) user could be interfering with the dominant user’s reasonable enjoyment of its vested property rights.
- The government might be asking to do more with your property than it is allowed to do under statute or by its granted rights.
- The property deeds and record plats might show conflicting information about your rights.
- The person entering or using your land might have no right to be there at all!
If you have a question about the scope of the property rights, limitations placed on your land by governmental agreements, record plats or deed conveyances, or the rights of your neighbors, you should talk to an attorney to help you determine your real property rights. For more information please call me at 301-251-1180 x 307 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.