Texas Supreme Court holds 1949 utility easements with “reconstruction” language means easements are general with no fixed width

Southwestern Electric Power Company v. Kenneth Lynch, Tommy Batchelor, and Twant Wilson, Texas, 18-0768, (Tex. – Feb. 28, 2020)

This is a property/easement dispute where the Texas Supreme Court held a set of utility easements were general, with no fixed width, regardless of the historic use.

In 1949, Southwestern Gas & Electric Company (Southwestern) acquired a number of easements over a stretch of land in northeast Texas to construct a transmission line. Southwestern constructed wooden poles at the time. Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) later acquired these easements. The easements authorize SWEPCO “to erect towers, poles and anchors along” a set course on a right-of-way that traverses several privately owned properties and SWEPCO historically used only 30 feet of easement area. In 2014 and 2015, SWEPCO undertook a modernization project to replace the transmission lines.  SWEPCO offer to set a width of 100 feet to individual property owners. Some owners accepted, but the Landowners in this case did not. After the project was completed, the Landowners filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment fixing SWEPCO’s easements to a thirty-foot width, fifteen feet on each side of the transmission line. They asserted the offer of 100 feet meant SWEPCO intended to exceed the 30 feet in the future.  SWEPCO filed two pleas to the jurisdiction, which were denied, and counterclaims for trespass and breach of contract. The trial court held a bench trial and held for the Landowners. The judgment was affirmed by the court of appeals.

The Court first determined SWEPCO’s pleas were properly denied as a ripe controversy existed regarding the scope of the easement, regardless of whether SWEPCO ever utilized more than 30 feet. While acknowledging many of the Landowner’s assertions were hypotheticals, it noted their claims are inextricably tethered to a disagreement of present scope. Regarding that scope, the easements do not state a specific maximum width of the right-of-way, nor do the easements specify how much of the land SWEPCO is entitled to access. Instead of construing the easements as general easements that intentionally omitted a defined width, the courts below incorrectly held the easements became “fixed and certain” once the transmission lines were constructed. The plain language of the easements stated they allowed for reconstruction and alteration, which contemplates future construction and installation of new poles and additional lines. The Court has recognized the existence of general easements that do not require a fixed width.  As a result, they are general easements with no fixed widths. However, the  Court noted a holder of a general easement must utilize the land in a reasonable manner and only to an extent that is reasonably necessary.  If at some point in the future SWEPCO utilizes the easements in a way that the Landowners believe is unreasonable and not reasonably necessary, or in a way that violates the express terms of the easements, the Landowners could at that point bring suit to enjoin SWEPCO’s use of the easements.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Green. Justice Bland did not participate. Docket page with attorney information can be found here.

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