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Of Horses and Houses

An easement is a right to use someone else's property for a specific purpose. Neighbors commonly give easements to each other in order to accommodate each other's needs. But what happens when the city fathers, in their greater wisdom, prohibit the use that one neighbor has allowed to the other?

That was the question before the court in a case out of the City of Los Angeles. In that case (Baccouche v. Blankenship [Sept. 11, 2007]) a homeowner (Blankenship) received an easement from his neighbor (Baccouche) to use a portion of the latter's property for the purpose of keeping and riding horses. Both properties were zoned residential in the City. Homeowner's property had a residence on it, but the neighbor's property was totally unimproved. The City's zoning ordinance allowed horses on residential property but only "in conjunction with the residential use of the lot." Obviously homeowner possessed residential use, but neighbor, having nothing on his land, did not.

The court had no difficulty finding that the grant of the easement by neighbor to homeowner was lawful. After all, property owners may transfer rights between themselves without interference from government. But, in a somewhat surprising conclusion, the court went on to say that the easement, though valid, was completely unenforceable by the homeowner. The court reasoned that, because the zoning allowed horses only "in conjunction with" residential use, keeping horses on unimproved lot was a prohibited use because the lot itself contained no residence. The fact that the user of the lot, the homeowner, did maintain a residence on his land made no difference.

As result, the homeowner did own an easement to use his neighbor's land in theory, but in practice he could not enforce that easement. That result is, admittedly, hard to digest.

The court could have avoided its conclusion by considering the easement to be part of the homeowner's property rights in his own lot. But the court explicitly rejected that analysis. The court took a narrow view that, in order to comply with the zoning, the home must sit on the lot where the horses actually run.

The issue about loss of property rights was bypassed altogether in the court's opinion. However, that issue becomes conspicuous by its omission. The homeowner effectively lost his rights in the easement. He could do nothing with the easement unless and until the City released him from the zoning. Of course, since homeowner was not the legal owner of the lot being used for his horses, it is doubtful that he held standing to apply to the City for a variance. That is a further irony in this case.

Although it is true the law allows local zoning to restrict how one uses one's property, and although a city is not necessarily liable for the resulting loss of property value, a city can go only so far before becoming liable under the Fifth Amendment for taking away a property owner's rights. This case, as I see it, approaches that legal boundary.

Easements are typically written for a specific use. When government denies that use altogether on the land covered by the easement, the property right represented by the easement has been destroyed. A little constitutional horse sense would have gone a long way in deciding this case.

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