Most parcels of land lie next to a street. Sometimes a property owner will split a parcel, creating an “interior” lot, without access to a street. This interior lot, surrounded on all sides by other property, is considered “landlocked”.
In Minnesota, the courts have recognized that a property owner has the legal right to create a landlocked parcel. Lake George Park, LLC v. IBM Mid-Am. Employees Fed. Credit Union, 576 N.W. 2d 463 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. June 17, 1998). Problems arise, however, when the owner of the landlocked parcel wants to cross another person’s property in order to get access to a road. In those situations, the courts look to see whether the property owners have a written or unwritten agreement about access. If a written agreement or an unwritten easement exists, the court will enforce it. If no such agreement or easement exists, then the only way to get access to the landlocked parcel will be by purchasing an adjacent parcel of land, or by purchasing an easement across a neighbor’s land.
The easiest cases are those where a written agreement exists between the two parties. The court then can interpret the agreement, and determine the length, width, location, and other details about the access.
A party claiming an unwritten agreement for access needs to demonstrate either that it has an easement by prescription, or an implied easement. To show an easement by prescription, the owner of the landlocked parcel must prove that the driveway has been used regularly for at least 15 years. Specifically, courts require proof by clear and convincing evidence that the use of the property has been actual, open, continuous, exclusive, and hostile for 15 years. Magnuson v. Cossette, 707 N.W. 2d 738 (Minn. App. 2006); Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W. 2d 650, 657 (Minn. 1999).
Implied easements can arise in a shorter time period, but the party claiming one must prove that the easement existed when the landlocked parcel was first created. The courts try to determine whether the owner who split the two parcels intended to grant an easement, and simply failed to follow the correct steps. Specifically, courts require proof (1) that back before the two parcels were split, the owner of the two parcels regularly crossed one to get to the other, (2) the owner then sold off part of the land without granting/retaining an easement to get to the other part, and (3) the easement was necessary at the time the property was split, and remains necessary if both parcels of land are to be used. Romanchuk v. Plotkin, 9 N.W. 2d 421, 424, 215 Minn. 156, 160-161 (1943).
Consider the situation where the owner of the landlocked parcel got permission to cross a neighbor’s land, and later the permission was revoked. The owner of the landlocked parcel faces the problem of how to regain access to the land. First, the owner cannot prove a prescriptive easement, because the previous permission destroyed the chance to claim the use was “hostile” (which simply means “without permission”). Second, the owner cannot claim an implied easement unless he can prove all three of the items listed above. This gets us to the final way to obtain access: by purchase.
If a landowner buys a landlocked parcel next to the landowner’s existing property, he or she can cross the old land to get to the new. Likewise, if the owner of a landlocked parcel buys adjacent property with street frontage, then he or she can cross the new parcel to get to the landlocked parcel. The owner of a landlocked parcel also may be able to buy a strip of land, or just an easement, to reach the landlocked parcel.
If the owner of the land with street frontage does not want to sell, the owner of the landlocked parcel still may be able to gain access, although at a price. If the land is located within a city, the land owner can request the city to condemn a street through to the landlocked parcel. If the city agrees that there is a public purpose for the street, it may proceed, but may request the owner of the landlocked parcel to pay the cost of the necessary litigation, including the cost of acquiring the land. If the landlocked parcel is in a township, the land owner may petition the town board to establish a cartway under Minn. Stat. § 164.08. Again, the petitioner should expect to pay the cost of establishing the road.
Free access to property (if access granted after litigation can be called free) is possible by written agreement, and by prescriptive and implied easements. Purchased access always remains an option, even across the property of an unwilling neighbor.