In Smith v. Straughn, ___ Mich App ___ (2020), decided on January 28, 2020 (Case No. 345391; 2020 WL 448304), the Michigan Court of Appeals has modified slightly the long-standing precedent that it is impermissible to install a gate across an easement except where such a right has been specifically reserved in the easement language. See, Cantieny v. Friebe, 341 Mich 143; 67 NW2d 102 (1954). The Straughn case holds that unless the plain language of the easement unambiguously forbids a non-obstructive gate, such gates may be permitted if reasonable under the circumstances. Here, the Court held that because the gate was not locked and its installation was not motivated by the goal of excluding the easement beneficiary, it was permitted.
Plaintiffs in this case had a 66-foot wide easement for ingress/egress across defendant’s property, which allowed them to drive from their house on one side of defendant’s parcel to their undeveloped property on the opposite side of defendant’s land. When the defendant experienced a break-in and theft at his house, for security, he constructed a 7-foot tall and 400-foot wide wooden fence across the border of his property, including across the easement and roadway, which plaintiffs used to cross the property. The gate in the fence had two doors that rolled open sideways, creating an opening 19.5 feet wide, larger than the 14-foot wide roadbed on the easement. When plaintiffs complained to defendants that it was inconvenient to get out of their car to open the gate and difficult for them to manage the large gate, the defendant offered to install an electric motor on the fence, but plaintiffs declined. The trial court did a site visit with the parties and determined that the gate was easy to open.
The Court of Appeals found it critical that the gate was always unlocked, easily opened, and that the defendant had offered to mechanize the gate, in finding that the gate was not prohibited, even though not specifically permitted in the easement. In addition, the Court found it important that the gate was not erected for the purpose of interfering with the easement holder’s use of the easement and, in fact, the gate did not interfere with that use.
This decision will likely be applied narrowly to future cases with similar facts. However, the inclusion of language in easement documents specifically excluding all fences and gates remains one way to avoid this problem.