Rights of Landlocked Land Owners in Tennessee

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Landlocked property is property that has no available public access road. Under Tennessee law, a purchaser of landlocked property generally has the right to obtain an easement to enter their property. But it's not always well-received by the neighboring property owner and can lead to litigation.

It's best to investigate beforehand and understand the rights Tennessee offers in this situation.

What Is a Landlocked Property?

Landlocked generally means a piece of land is locked up, or inaccessible by vehicle. It is most commonly used in the context of a country or state: Real property will be termed landlocked if it does not front on a sea or ocean.

For example, no country in North America is landlocked, but many states are, like Colorado. In Europe, however, some countries are landlocked, including Switzerland, Hungary, and Austria.

However, the term has a different meaning in the context of real estate. When used in reference to a piece of property, it means that the land cannot be accessed by a public thoroughfare.

The landlocked parcel can be accessed only through an adjacent property that fronts on a public road. For example, a property located behind a shopping area would be considered landlocked if it can be reached only by walking through the mall.

How Does a Property End Up Landlocked?

How does it happen that a property ends up without a means of access? This usually happens as a result of property division.

When a large parcel of land is subdivided into smaller lots that were sold off individually, some of those smaller parcels may not front on a public right-of-way. While this can often be prevented by appropriate planning, sometimes parcels are left without road access, far from a public road.

This result doesn't solely follow the creation of a subdivision. Think of large family land holdings that are divvied up between family members through an inheritance. Accessing the different parcels becomes trickier when those heirs sell their land to third parties, and access to the landlocked parcels can become an issue.

Can a Tennessee Landowner Get Access?

Most states don't leave landlocked landowners to figure out some aerial method of arriving at their property. Rather, state laws usually offer these property owners several alternative ways of acquiring the rights to enter and leave their land. Tennessee is among those states that provide access rights to landlocked landowners.

In Tennessee, state and federal laws protect the right of property owners to acquire “productive use” of their land, for example by access to a public road by an easement, the right to cross over neighboring lands. In Tennessee, there are various types of easements, including easement by agreement and easement by necessity.

What Is an Easement?

An easement is a "non-possessory" interest in the land of another. Non-possessory means that the person benefiting from the easement does not get to own the land. The easement simply gives the person holding it the right to use another owner's land for a specific purpose like egress and ingress. Once an easement is in place, neither landowner can alter it without the permission of the other.

Easements in Tennessee

In Tennessee, several types of easements give landowners the right to use neighboring lands owned by others to access their property. There are also different easements that offer rights other than egress and ingress, like easements allowing a property owner to use land owned by someone else in order to lay pipe, utility lines or connect to a sewer.

An easement in Tennessee can benefit a parcel of land or it can benefit an individual. The former involves a "dominant tenement" which benefits from the easement and a "servient tenement" that is burdened by the easement. These are said to "run with the land," meaning they are passed on to subsequent owners of the dominant tenement.

An easement that benefits one individual is called an easement in gross, and these cannot be assigned or sold to a third party.

How Is an Easement Created in Tennessee?

Under Tennessee law, easements may be created by contract, by inference, by reservation, by prescription and by estoppel.

Easements in Tennessee

Express easement

Created by a written agreement identifying the location, size and permitted use.

Implied easement

Inferred by the facts and circumstances of the transaction, including severance of unity.

Easement by reservation

Created by a grantor reserving the right to an easement in a transfer of part of the property.

Easement by prescription

Created when a person, acting under an adverse claim of right, makes continuous, uninterrupted, open, visible and exclusive use of neighboring land for at least 20 years with the true owner's knowledge and acquiescence.

Easement by estoppel

Created by the courts as a result of a misrepresentation or fraud by the owner of a servient tenement.

What Is Severance of Unity?

In order to establish an implied easement, or easement of necessity, in Tennessee, the owner of the landlocked property must show "severance of unity." This means that they must prove that the initial owner of the land subdivided the property and that the landlocked parcel resulted from that subdivision.

What Are the Landowner's Options?

A Tennessee landowner with landlocked property has several options when obtaining an easement. They can seek an express easement by negotiating with the owner of an adjacent property to acquire a deeded right to cross the neighboring land.

The best course of action is to get legal help to prepare an easement deed signed by the neighboring landowner and any lien holders. Or, they can file a lawsuit asking the court to declare an implied easement or easement by necessity.

What Is an Easement-by-necessity Lawsuit?

Anyone who owns landlocked property can try to make an arrangement with one or more adjacent property owners to obtain a written easement for access. However, if this proves unsuccessful, they might be forced to take the matter to court.

Tennessee law recognizes easements-by-necessity. This stems from the grounded belief that every landowner has a legal right to access their property. If necessary, this right can be enforced through state courts.

The owner of the landlocked property can file suit requesting such an easement. If a property has any other means of access, the court will deny the suit. If it does not, a judge or jury will determine the size and placement of the easement and award appropriate compensation to the neighboring landowner.

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