In California, the rules regarding adverse possession and prescriptive easement are well established.
A recent decision regarding commercial property in Irvine addressed the one rare situation in which payment of taxes IS required to establish a prescriptive easement; in this case however, payment of taxes was not needed to establish the easement.
The Plaintiff in Main Street Plaza v. Cartwright and Main LLC owned a retail center. One defendant owns the adjacent property. Behind the two parcels is an alley. The second defendant owns the property behind the other two, on the other side of the alley. The property lines were in the middle of the alley. To make it interesting, down the alley there was a no-longer used easement owned by a railroad for only “railroad purposes.”
The customers and vendors of Main Street Plaza regularly used the alley for parking and access, so the plaintiffs felt they had obtained a prescriptive easement and filed a lawsuit to quiet title to their prescriptive easement.
The railroad easement was separately assessed and taxed, and the railroad paid the taxes. The defendants argued that this case involved the rare exception in prescriptive easement law, where if the underlying easement is separately assessed, the trespasser must pay those property taxes in order for his wrongful use to ripen into a prescriptive easement. The trial court agreed, and since the plaintiff had not paid the taxes assessed on the easement, they had not established a prescriptive easement.
The court of appeal said no, you’re wrong. The rule about paying taxes only applies when the prescriptive easement and the granted easement are coextensive in use. Here, the prescriptive easement was for access and parking. The deeded railroad easement was for only railroad purposes, so the uses were not identical.
This case demonstrates a couple of things about California real estate law- that you can have an easement across an easement; and that in rare instances, the prescriptive easement is similar to adverse possession, in that it requires payment of taxes. Anyone seeking to further untangle the complexities of easements should consult with an experienced California Real Estate Lawyer.