The Snead family owned a farm property in Fredericksburg, Va. In 1994, the family conveyed a parcel of their property to the Industrial Development Authority of Fredericksburg (IDA). The parcel transfer reserved a 20-year-old easement to the Snead family for ingress and egress across the northernmost 60 feet of the parcel, for purposes of accessing the Snead family land.
In 2004, the IDA transferred four acres of the parcel that had been conveyed by the Sneads to C&S Properties and Sylvia Properties, including the portion across which the Snead access easement ran. The IDA transfer documents expressly rendered the transferee’s ownership, subject to the easement rights of the Snead family.
C&S Properties constructed a fence and installed a pile of riprap material within the boundaries of the easement, forcing the Snead family to use alternative, disruptive means of getting sewage pumping vehicles to their property, and eliminating two-way traffic access across the easement.
The Snead family sued, arguing that C&S Properties was interfering with the Snead family’s ability to use their easement and breached a covenant to which C&S Properties had agreed.
The trial court rejected the Snead family’s arguments, and declined to order C&S Properties to remove its fence and other items from the easement area, holding that "it would be a useless and unduly burdensome act to compel the defendants to remove all man-made objects within the (easement)."
The trial court emphasized that the Snead family’s own expert testified that there was also a stand of trees running the length of the easement, which, as a result, would not be entirely unobstructed even if C&S Properties removed all its man-made items from the area.
The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s ruling.
On appeal, the higher court agreed with the Snead family’s contention that the trial court’s ruling "was plainly wrong because the man-made improvements and obstructions in the easement prevent Snead’s ‘use and enjoyment of a significant portion of the easement.’ "
The deed from IDA to C&S Properties clearly reserved the right of ingress and egress through the entire 60-foot easement area (not just a gravel road contained therein, with which C&S had not interfered) to the Snead family, the court explained. The reservation of the entire width of the easement must be enforced; otherwise, the court went on, C&S would begin to gain new rights against the Sneads’ easement to the area it blocked with its fences and man-made objects through adverse possession.
The appellate court also agreed with the Snead family’s claim that the trial court’s "denial of injunctive relief ‘would permit a taking of a portion of the easement by (C&S Properties), thereby rewarding (C&S Properties) for its interference with (Snead’s) deeded property rights.’ "
The Court of Appeals pointed out that C&S Properties’ fence blocked the Snead family from accessing nearly two-thirds of the entire width of their easement. This constitutes a "material encroachment" by C&S Properties on the Snead family’s rights as owners of the easement.
Accordingly, the trial court’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded to the lower court for the imposition of an order for C&S Properties to remove their fences and other man-made objects from the area constituting the easement.