New Case Summary – 440 North SF v. Vista Heights Investments

May 16, 2024

Utah Court of Appeals

2024 UT App 73 (click for full text of opinion)

The Utah Court of Appeals upheld a judgment establishing an implied easement in favor of commercial access across residential property.

440 North SF, LLC, purchased residential property in Provo that backs up to commercial property owned by Vista Heights Investments, LLC, and used as a diamond manufacturing business. A road runs between the two properties which has been used by the business to access certain parts of the facility. This road was built at a period in time at which both the residential and commercial parcels were owned by the same party, though the two parcels have each changed hands several times since then. Upon 440 North learning that the road was part of its property, 440 North sued for trespass and to quiet title to use of the road. Vista Heights and the business countersued to establish an implied easement. 

Vista Heights moved for summary judgment that it had established an implied easement, which requires (1) a unity of title followed by severance, 2) that the servitude was apparent at time of severance, 3) the easement is reasonably necessary for enjoyment of the dominant estate, and 4) that use of the easement was continuous.The district court granted judgment in favor of Vista Heights, and 440 North appealed.

440 North made several arguments on appeal, including challenges to the unity of title and reasonable necessity elements, and an argument that the court had created an unlawful easement that violated the City’s zoning ordinances. 440 North argued that the first element regarding unity of title required ownership of a single tract of land that is then severed, which did not apply here. 

The Court of Appeals affirmed the finding of unity of title, holding that the element is met when two distinct but adjacent parcels owned by a single individual or entity are then separated due to a change in ownership. The Court of Appeals also rejected 440 North’s argument that an implied easement could not be established where the commercial parcel is not landlocked. The Court held that an implied easement requires only a reasonable necessity, not an absolute one. 

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected 440 North’s additional arguments that the creation of the easement violated the City’s ordinances – as the zoning of 440 North’s residential parcel on which the road is found does not allow for commercial uses. The Court of Appeals noted that nothing in the district court’s ruling orders 440 North to do anything, but only establishes that the business had satisfied all the elements of an implied easement, explaining, “the existence of a property right is different than the ability to use that right in a specific way.” The easement alone does not require the servient estate owner to do anything beyond allowing the dominant estate owner to use its property right, in which case, the city can bring enforcement actions against any person responsible for a zoning violation. The Court concluded, however, the mere potential for a zoning violation has no bearing on the validity of an easement.