by Tim Rasmussen, Stevens County Prosecutor
Not long ago, I attended a session of Superior Court and one of the civil cases came up before Judge Monasmith. I usually do not pay much attention to civil proceedings in court because they are between two private parties and do not involve the county or the citizens as a group, but I was interested in this problem because it involved easements.
It seems that several landowners shared a road by way of easements across their land. At some point, they wanted to figure out some way of sharing the maintenance expenses of the common road, so the primary owner (the one who had developed the property) purchased a tractor and they agreed to share costs of upkeep on the tractor by language in the deeds regarding the tractor’s use on the easement. Time passed and so did the original developer.
The thing that brought this to court was a current claim by one of the owners that this mention of the tractor on his deed created an ownership right in the tractor itself. The law of easements provides that an easement or burden to the land will obligate subsequent owners of the land. When this happens, the easement is said to “run with the land.” The case was about whether or not this language in the deed would create an ownership right in the tractor that would “run with the land.” So whoever owned the land owned part of the tractor.
Judge Monasmith listened to the arguments of the attorneys and noted that improvements to land like houses and roads and things that are affixed to land can run with the land, because they cannot be separated, but this is not the case with a movable thing like a tractor. The court noted that the party who wanted to claim ownership in the tractor by way of this language could not present any sound legal theory to support the claim and so he dismissed the matter. Land cannot own a tractor.
Easements are a major source of neighbor-to-neighbor conflict in our county. Two agreeable people share a road or a well and then one party moves or the ownership changes. The next sets of owners (although they bought knowing about the easement) are not so agreeable with the inconveniences of sharing the driveway or the well. They begin to bicker. These are civil disputes as was the dispute over the tractor, but sometimes this bickering turns into an open conflict with threats and assaults and worse. Then it is a criminal matter and based on police reports, criminal charges may be filed. The best thing to do is to be very cautious when giving an easement or buying property where easements are involved.