Q: I have a question concerning easements. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has an easement on my property. It’s a rural property and the problem is they just showed up, cut the lock on the gate and helped themselves. No notice or anything. Can they do that? Isn’t there some law to protect the property owner that requires the company to give notice of some kind? The real nagging part is their easement is on another part of my property and they have to drive where they have no easement to get to their easement. Thanks.
A: With regard to easements in general; no, there’s no requirement that the holder of the easement inform the property owner, known as the “servient tenement,” of their intent to use their easement.
The very definition of an easement is a right in which a nonowner of the land can use the owner’s land for a specific purpose.
It is possible to put into an easement agreement conditions under which the easement holder can use the easement, such as with a 24-hour notice, but such conditions are not common with utility easements.
The typical utility easement allows the utility provider, be they electric, water, gas, cable, etc., to come onto a property to install or maintain their physical infrastructure. In days gone by that often meant accessing the telephone poles that were usually placed in backyards. Even in older subdivisions, water and gas pipes are typically going through the front yard, which is easy to get at from the street.
Regardless, the utility company didn’t run their services until they had guaranteed themselves an easement.
Problems like yours arise when one of two things happens.
First, especially in rural properties, easements that were established many, many decades ago when they made sense, make less sense after years of properties being divided and boundary lines changed. So an easement that was easily accessible in 1942 is now landlocked.
Battles like yours have been fought in court for years. Today, it’s all but uncontested that a recorded easement which later becomes landlocked can be accessed via the most reasonable means available. This new unrecorded access easement is known as an “easement by necessity.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the utility can get to their easement by driving their trucks through your living room. But clearly they can drive on the unobstructed side of your property.
The second problem that occurs is when boundary lines haven’t changed, but homeowners have installed fences, gates, concrete patios and the like over the easement.
This is extremely common.
Anyone who looks at the recorded map of their residential property will see lots of easements. Most will never be accessed by the municipality or company that owns the easement. They dropped their pipes or wires in the ground and that’s the last time anyone will ever see them. But if they do need to get to it, for example if there was a leaky gas pipe, the utility could excavate the owner’s improvements and not have to pay to replace them.
The same goes for the gate with a lock.
If you’ve run a gate across an access easement and it has a lock, the utility is free to cut the lock, or even remove the fence if necessary, to access their easement.
Now while this sounds somewhat harsh, the truth is that unless there is an emergency, municipalities and utility companies generally have an internal policy of notifying owners of their intent to enter the property. Remember, they don’t have to. But inspired by the fear of bad press, most will give notice.
I’m just speculating here, but it’s possible that since your property is rural, the utility didn’t anticipate there would be a problem like there would be if you lived in the suburbs. I don’t know.
But the best thing I can suggest for the future is that you contact PG&E, give them your address and your contact information, and ask that you be given reasonable notice of their intent to enter next time. Tell them you’d be happy to show up and remove the lock.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected]