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In the case Stevens et al. v. Parker, a lot owner subdivided the lot into two, carving out a 10-foot-wide easement for the landlocked parcel across the other parcel to get to the public road. The easement was too narrow to meet municipal code requirements for emergency vehicle access, so the lot owner signed a document releasing the city from all liability for damages arising from the inability of emergency vehicles to access the lot, in order to obtain the city’s approval for the subdivision. The lot owner sold both lots.
The owner of the non-landlocked lot (the Parkers) desired to fence their lot up to the edge of the easement. The easement holders (the Stevenses) filed suit, seeking to prohibit the fence and asking the court to declare their easement sufficiently wide for emergency vehicles to turn around in order to leave — which would require "a significant easement" on the neighbors’ land.
The trial court declared that "as a matter of law the plaintiffs are entitled to an easement by necessity for emergency medical vehicles to turn around," and allowed the owners of the lot on which the easement ran to provide evidence of the necessary width.
The court and the parties visited the site, where the local fire department demonstrated several alternatives for accessing and leaving the site in an emergency, including turning the vehicles around, reversing the way they came in, and manually wheeling a gurney from the house to the public road.
After this site visit, the court reversed its earlier ruling widening the easement to allow emergency vehicles to turn around, given that the act of reversing and wheeling the gurney out to the road was actually faster than turning the vehicle around, and required no widening of the easement. The trial court dismissed the case.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. The court found no legal authority for an easement for emergency access. In fact, the court explained, the unique geography and land-use history of the area has resulted in many properties having such "flagpole" easements or other situations (e.g., being waterlocked, or located at the top of many stairs) prohibiting any emergency access to the property whatsoever.
At trial, the local fire chief testified that the department had a routine for providing emergency services in similar situations to that involved in this case.
Because the department’s alternative methods of leaving the scene — reversing back down the driveway or wheeling a gurney to the road — were both less time-consuming than turning around, the landlocked-lot-owners’ claim that the easement must be widened for emergency services access was defeated.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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