The Docket: When an Easement Holder Ran So Far Away from the Easement’s Purpose, It Lost the Easement

Title:
The Docket: When an Easement Holder Ran So Far Away from the Easement’s Purpose, It Lost the Easement
Publication:
The Docket - December 21, 2021
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The Docket is a monthly TitleNews Online feature provided by ALTA’s Title Counsel Committee, which reviews significant court rulings and other legal developments, and explains the relevance to the title insurance industry.

December 21, 2021

Michael R. O’Donnell, Michael P. Crowley and Kevin Hakansson, all of the law firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti LLP, provided today’s review of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in a suit alleging that an ordinance triggered the easement's abandonment clause. O’Donnell can be reached at modonnell@riker.com, Crowley can be reached at mcrowley@riker.com and Hakansson can be reached at khakansson@riker.com.

Citation: A Flock of Seagirls LLC v. Walton County Florida, 7 F.4th 1072 (2021).

Facts: In 1996, the State of Florida initiated eminent domain proceedings against St. Joe Paper Co. The result of the proceedings was the creation of a “permanent public access easement allowing public pedestrian access laterally along the beach” on 75 feet of beach running parallel to the Gulf of Mexico, although St. Joe retained ownership of the strip of land. The judgment bound the parties as well as their successors and assigns. In 2000, St. Joe established the WaterColor Community Association. St. Joe recorded the easement in 2002. The easement included an abandonment clause, which provided in relevant part that Walton County would be deemed to have abandoned the easement if it attempted to use the easement for any other purpose. In 2017, the county enacted an ordinance that permitted members of the public to make several recreational uses—including sunbathing, picnicking, fishing, swimming and building sandcastles—of dry sand areas that are owned by private entities, including the land that is subject to the easement. The plaintiffs own beachfront lots in the WaterColor community and sued claiming that the ordinance constituted an unconstitutional taking of their property rights and triggered the easement’s abandonment because it attempted to use the property for purposes other than “a way of passage, on or by foot only.” While the constitutional claim was rendered moot by a bill passed in the Florida legislature, the abandonment claim was heard by the district court. That court acknowledged that by enacting the ordinance, the county had attempted to use the easement for an “expanded purpose,” but held that uses that expand on but are consistent with the purpose of an easement do not evince an intent to abandon. Because the ordinance contemplated uses that were consistent with (even if broader than) the easement’s purpose, the plaintiffs had not shown an intent to abandon and thus had not demonstrated that the county had abandoned the easement. The plaintiffs appealed.

Holding: The Eleventh Circuit reversed. In its decision, the court considered whether the ordinance triggered the terms of the easement’s abandonment clause, and whether any other sources of law forestall or limit the abandonment clause’s operation. The court answered the first question, stating that the plain language of the ordinance indicated an abandonment of the easement, pointing out that the easement’s purpose as “a way of passage” was for “a locomotive purpose [i.e. an access easement],” rather than the Ordinance’s aim of using the land for “recreational purposes.” As for the second question, the court disagreed with the county’s assertion that Florida common law, separate provisions of the easement, and the original judgment limited the abandonment clause. It instead found that under Florida law, the public’s right to full use of the beaches was not absolute or boundless, and that the county’s interpretation of the “perpetual” and “permanent” nature of the easement was flawed and the easement was still subject to conditions that could terminate it. As such, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding the easement was abandoned. 

Importance to the title industry: This case highlights that attempts to burden and expand on an easement—even when done in the public interest—are not enforceable when inconsistent with the very purpose for which the easement was given. Here, the court found an access easement is just that, and attempts to expand the easement with additional uses having nothing to do with access risks having the easement terminated.