Gate Disputes: North Carolina Court Affirms Law on Gates and Access Easements

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A recent North Carolina Court of Appeals decision provides some clarity to when a landowner may install a gate on a path that serves as an easement through several properties. The case from Alamance County, Taylor v. Hiatt, No. COA18-864 (June 4, 2019), looked to the language of the recorded easement (conveyed by deed) to determine whether the owner of the servient estate (the land over which an easement runs) may erect a gate.

Consider the following facts (simplified for clarity). Party A owns one large tract (Tract 1) and files a plat to subdivide the tract in two. One of the subdivisions (Tract 2) does not have public road access. When Tract 2 is sold by Party A to Party B, the deed of transfer grants to B an easement over Tract 1 to access the public road. In common law legal terms, Tract 1 is the “servient estate” because the easement exists in favor of Tract 2, known as the “dominant estate.” In the deed, the language of transfer states that Tract 2 is conveyed along with a “30 foot easement across Tract 1 to State Road which shall remain open.”  Sometime later, the Party A (owners of Tract 1, the servient estate) erect a gate across the easement in order to contain their horses, and offer Party B (owners of Tract 2, the dominant estate) the lock combination. Party B says, “No, we don’t want a gate.” Party A sues Party B, seeking a declaratory judgement from the court affirming its right to erect a gate. (Again, the actual facts and procedural questions of Taylor are more complicated, and the above scenario is cobbled together to illustrate the holding of the case.)

The Court in Taylor affirmed North Carolina common law rule – from the case of Chesson v. Jordan, 224 N.C. 636 (1944) that says the owner of the servient estate may place a gate across an easement enjoyed by the dominant estate “‘when necessary to the reasonable enjoyment of his estate, provided they are of such nature as to materially impair or unreasonably interfere’ with the purpose of the easement of the dominant estate.” (Taylor, pg 7, citing Chesson, pg 637). In other words, gates are OK, so long as they do not frustrate the purpose of the easement, which is to grant access to a public road. However, said the Court, cited an opinion that held where the language creating the easement – here, in the language in a deed – says the easement is to remain open, then the owner of the servient estate may not erect a gate.

Quoting from the case of Setzer v. Annas, 286 N.C. 534 (1975), the Taylor court wrote:  “Generally, the grant of a way without reservation of the right to maintain gates does not necessarily preclude the owner of the land from having them; unless it is expressly stipulated that the way shall be an open one or it appears from the terms of the grant or the circumstances that such was the intention, the owner of the servient estate may erect gates across the way if they are constructed so as to not to interfere unreasonably with the right of passage.”  Setzer at 539.

Applying this rule to the paraphrased fact pattern above, because the deed of transfer of Tract 2 to Party B created an easement with a requirement that it remain “open,” Party A – owner of Tract 1 – may not erect a gate, regardless of whether the gate would interfere with Party B’s ingress and egress and use of the easement to access the public road.