A utility easement is an easement which gives a utility the right to use and access a specific area of a property. The area covered by the easement is usually clearly defined in the text of the easement, and the easement is attached to the property deed so that it will persist even when the property is transferred or sold. People who are researching the purchase of new property should definitely take the time to have the title researched to learn more about any outstanding easements and other things which may restrict the use and enjoyment of the property.
Utilities can request an easement for any number of reasons. A classic example of a utility easement is an easement which allows the power company to run electrical lines along a property, and to install utility poles if the property is long enough that the lines cannot pass over the property without support. The utility has the right to utilize a strip of land for the lines, and to enter the land to access the lines for maintenance and repair, which can include tree trimming, replacing rotted utility poles, and so forth.
Other utilities such as water and sewer companies, gas companies, and phone companies may request utility easements. For the utility, crossing land is often easier and cheaper than going around it, and if an easement deal can be worked out, it will save the utility money in the future. In other cases, a utility needs to cross private property to bring services to someone else, as for example when a lot is split in two and the back house needs access to water, power, gas, and so forth. Without an easement, the utility would not be able to guarantee provision of services.
When property is split or lot lines are readjusted, utilities may take an interest because the change may require a utility easement to address concerns about accessibility to utilities. Likewise, when land is being newly developed, easements may be put in place to accommodate the need for roads, utilities, drainage, and so forth.
Having an easement gives the utility the right to use the land, but the utility does not own it. However, the property owner may encounter certain restrictions on land use in an area covered by a utility easement. For example, if a power company has a utility easement, the property owner cannot plant tall trees in the area of the easement, because they could interfere with the power lines. Likewise, a swimming pool could not be dug out where there is a buried gas line.
How Wide Is a Utility Easement?
A utility easement's width is a unique characteristic of each separate easement. The width of the sewage board's easement on your neighbor's property might be a completely different width and shape than the easement on your property.
The current shape and size of a utility easement are not necessarily written in stone. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases that easements can be edited by the owner as long as the subservient entity approves the edit and agrees the continued business of the utility will go unhindered.
If you purchase some land and discover that a utility company is accessing a part of your property that interferes with your operations unnecessarily, then you have the right to reconstruct an easement map that changes the area, shape and size of the easement. The newly mapped easement needs to be approved by the utility and entered into the record for all future property deeds. A real estate attorney can assist with this sort of change.
How Close Can You Build to a Utility Easement?
Not only can you build near an easement, but you can build right on top of an easement. It isn't exactly a smart idea, however. If you build a fence, for example, and part of the fence runs through an access easement that you didn't know about, then the entity with legal use of the easement can legally have your fence removed from that spot.
When you purchase a new home or a plot of land, the title should have the current easements documented with specificity. Older easements might not have as accurate of a description anymore. Always ask the real estate agents during the property closing where the easements are located if you aren't already aware. This ensures that you don't build a fence across an active easement.
Some homeowners who are aware of easements on their property get creative about how they build on top of them. If there's an underground easement for a gas pipe that runs under a homeowner's backyard, for example, opting for an above-ground pool is a good compromise. In the event of the utility company needing access to the pipe, the pool can more easily be moved than a below-ground pool.
Can I Refuse a Utility Easement?
Not only utility companies but nearby property owners or businesses with interests in the area may ask you for an easement to get on or through your property for some type of reason. Sometimes there is money involved to sweeten the deal, but not always. As a property owner, you are not obligated to agree to the easement.
In the case of a utility concern, if there are other properties nearby that could grant the same access, they may agree to the utility easement after you don't. If the utility further pushes the case, citing the necessity to get on your particular property for a particular reason, you may need a real estate lawyer to defend your position. The state could get involved on the utility's behalf, but then eminent domain laws might come into play.
In some cases, you may be more than happy to grant an easement. For example, if you own a deep lot with no road access in the rear and you build a home on that rear section, you probably want to give an access easement for a driveway so the newly built house has street access. That new easement will be recorded on your property title, and if you ever sell your home, the new owner will adopt the access easement.