A few years ago I was overseeing a project (drum-roll please….) to reduce the flooding in several neighborhoods. It was a decent sized project that would have a positive impact for about 300 homes. I had spent six years investigating, speaking to property owners, and convincing the purse holders that this drainage improvement project was an absolute necessity; by year seven the project was physically underway. Before we had stuck a shovel in the ground, I had attended several neighborhood meetings to discuss our drainage plans and had sent letters to numerous households asking for their comments. A fair number of people attended / responded and I got the word out that we were going to initiate this project in their backyards…which had a utility and drainage easement.
Can you guess where this story goes? Keep reading!
What is a drainage easement?!
Actually, the large majority of people I speak with have heard the words “easement” and “right of way”. They tend to understand there is an area, usually in the rear of their lot, where utilities and drains are located. If those utilities or drains are damaged, then someone will have to go back there and fix them. The easement gives a utility company or government entity the right to enter the property to make a repair. The size and location of the easement are on the plat of the property / subdivision. This is how you know if there is a drainage easement on a property.
So far America, we are on the same page.
- Tip: as a rough guide, if you see utility poles with lines strung on them in the rear / side of your property, there is a good chance there is an easement in the backyard.
Who owns the easement?
This is where things become confusing. People are eager to tell me the owner of that weedy place behind their house that contains the easement (in order of popularity):
- The County (the definite winner!);
- The City (a very popular answer);
- A utility company, most likely the power company;
- A neighbor (this can be true, but it is rare because I did my homework before I went out there);
- No one (I hear this every so often);
- Me, the property owner (not a popular answer).
The correct answer is the last one, which tends to leave some people shocked.
The story continues…
On the first morning, after our construction company started cutting down trees in the easement of the first property, I received an angry call from the property owners. I immediately went to meet with them and we discussed the project that was taking place. As it turns out, they had (in the last few months):
- not answered the door (twice) when I had knocked on it;
- heard from their neighbor that I wanted to speak with them, but had not called me on the phone number I had left;
- thrown away one of the two letters I had sent them. They had saved the last one, which requested that they call me so I could explain the project to them.
Once we had worked through the angry stage, we were able to have a conversation about what was happening. As they learned, I had arranged with the electric company to replace several aged utility poles and a transformer behind their house, and had also set up the water company to repair a failing water valve, also behind their house. With one project, three entities were resolving known or future issues in the easement on their property. This meant that there would not be three different project occur at different times that would mess up their place and intrude on their quiet neighborhood.
The flood finale
No matter how hard you try, there will always be some people who are not happy when the word “easement” is brought up. Unfortunately, this is something that is not well understood, so outreach is critical before initiating a construction project of any size in the easement.
To conclude the story, we worked out a compromise with the property owners to replace some of the trees on their wooded part of the property, set back from the new utility poles, water line, and drainage ditch. Even though our project was in the easement and we had the right to be there, sometimes doing a little extra helps makes things work a bit more smoothly.
If you are a realtor helping a client acquire a home, please help them understand what easements exist on the property…this helps everyone later on.
If you have had fun with easements, please let me know in the comments section!