Plaintiffs and defendants own adjacent tracts of land and the defendants have an easement in a gravel road that extends from Defendants' tract, across the plaintiffs' tract, to a public road. A gate blocking the road was erected by the plaintiffs resulting in litigation that was previously carried to the Court of Appeals resulting in a win on the legal issues for the defendants, but a remand to the trial court for further finding of facts. (See our analysis in Statewide Title Newsletter and Legal Memorandum, Issue 255, Article 407, published: 7/1/2019)
The trial court initially granted the defendants' summary judgment, concluding that plaintiffs were prohibited "from having any gates, bars, fences and the like upon [the easement]." The plaintiffs appealed that judgment and the Court of Appeals observed that a portion of the easement was created initially and that another portion of the easement was created subsequently. Based on the explicit limiting language used in the grant of the initial easement, the Court determined that the plaintiffs do not have any right to erect any gate over this portion, but they do have the right to erect gates across the portion of the easement created subsequently, as that grant contained no limiting language requiring that the easement remain "open." Further, the first appellate opinion noted that such right is limited to erecting gates on this portion only and only "when necessary to the reasonable enjoyment of" the tract providing that any such gates "are not of such nature as to materially impair or unreasonably interfere" with the purpose of the defendants' easement rights citing Chesson v. Jordan, 244 N.C. 289, 29 S.E.2d 906 (1944).
The opinion states that there was no evidence before the trial court to show where the plaintiffs had erected the gates, whether on the initial restricted easement or the subsequent section created without the limiting language and the Court remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings to determine those facts and issues. The trial court then conducted a bench trial and entered its judgment, finding that the gates were erected on the portion of the easement that did not contain a limitation that the easements remain "open." However, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs did not have the right to erect gates on any part of the easement and ordered the plaintiffs to remove the gates, declaring that "Plaintiffs are prohibited from installing gates across the road used by the Defendants..." The plaintiffs appealed resulting in this opinion.
The Court of Appeals relied heavily upon Chesson affirm the portion of the trial court's order directing the plaintiffs to remove the existing gates. In discussing Chesson, the opinion states:
In that case, our Supreme Court explained that a private easement "carries with it no implication of a right to deprive the owner of the servient estate of the full enjoyment of his property" and "it is subject only to the right of passage." Id. at 293, 29 S.E.2d at 909. Accordingly, the estate owner "may erect gates across the way when  necessary to the reasonable enjoyment of his estate,  provided they are not of such nature as to materially impair or unreasonably interfere with the use of the lane as a private way for the purposes for which it has theretofore been used." Id. at 293, 29 S.E.2d at 909.
The trial court determined that the plaintiffs did not satisfy either of the two prongs necessary to establish a servient tract owner's right to erect gates on an easement however, the Court of Appeals disagreed as to the necessity issue as the evidence was undisputed that "Plaintiffs use their tract for agricultural purposes (for keeping horses) that the Plaintiffs have fenced in their tract, and that the Plaintiffs have erected the gates to prevent their horses from escaping." the opinion's analysis of the facts and controlling North Carolina case law on this aspect is consistent with the doctrine set out in Chesson concluding that the trial court erred in determining that prohibiting the plaintiffs' erection of gates would not deprive Plaintiffs of the reasonable use of their tract.
As to the issues of Material Impairment or Unreasonable Interference, the trial court determined that "[t]he gates erected by Plaintiffs are of a nature to materially impair and unreasonably interfere with the Defendants' right of egress and ingress over the road." The trial court as finder of fact found that there were many issues with the gates, some of which are as follows:
The key boxes, where a code had to be entered to open the gate, were located well off the road, requiring Defendants to get out of their car to enter the code. Plaintiffs refused to provide Defendants a remote control. The keypads were temperamental in that a single mistype of the code sometimes locked Defendants out from trying again. The gates would sometimes not function in the cold weather. Plaintiffs' horses sometimes congregated around the gates, making it difficult for Defendants to open the gates while keeping the horses from escaping.
The Court of Appeals concluded:
These and the other findings of the trial court, sitting as the fact-finder, support the trial court's determination that the gates, as constructed by Plaintiffs, constituted an unreasonable obstruction. As such, the trial court did not err in ordering Plaintiffs to remove the gates.
However they found the trial court's denial of a right to erect gates on the unrestricted portion of the easement improper, concluding that the "portion of the trial court's judgment declaring that Plaintiffs have no right at all to erect gates across the portion of the easement created in 2000 is modified to allow the erection of gates by Plaintiffs, provided that the gates would not unreasonably interfere with Defendants' easement rights."
This opinion does not disturb a fairly consistent line of cases on the issue of gating access easements and may be said to shed a little more light on the balancing of the respective rights of the easement holder and the burdened property owner.