This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. §480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Daniel A. Kapphan, et al.,
Zion Lutheran Church,
Filed September 21, 1999
Affirmed in part, reversed in part
Otter Tail County District Court
File No. C9-98-810
Jimmy A. Lindberg, 2211 Main Street South, Cambridge, MN 55008 (for respondents)
Lance R. Heisler, P.O. Box 743, Detroit Lakes, MN 56502 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant Zion Lutheran Church granted respondents Daniel and Lauretta Kapphan an ingress and egress easement across a surveyed 33-foot wide portion of the church property and allowed respondents to build the access road at their expense and suitable to their own specifications. After construction of the road began, respondents decided to gate the road on the easement, rather than at their property line, and decided that guardrails were needed for safety. Appellant challenges the district court’s conclusion that a reasonable use of the driveway includes gating it and placing guardrails or a fence along the road. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
Appellant owns property immediately to the east and north of property owned by respondents. At the time respondents purchased their property, the only access to it was by means of a cartway that crossed over property owned by appellant.
In 1995, the parties began negotiations for relocation of the access. Steven Kantrud, on behalf of appellant, prepared and submitted a letter of agreement to respondents concerning relocation of the access. The agreement, later signed by both parties, provided that (1) Zion will grant respondents "a perpetual ingress and egress easement across the surveyed 33 foot wide access"; and (2) respondents "will build, at their expense, an access road, suitable to their own specifications, on the 33 foot wide access easement."
During the course of construction of the driveway, respondents decided to install a gate on the easement road, not on their north property line, but at a location on the easement. After respondents installed the gate, Mr. Kantrud demanded that respondents remove the gate; but respondents refused. The gate was eventually removed.
Following removal of the gate, respondents sought judgment from the district court construing the easement to allow respondents to place a gate and guardrails on the easement and to enjoin appellants from removing the gate and guardrails.
At trial, Steven Kantrud, and Daniel and Lauretta Kapphan all testified that, although unsaid, it was contemplated that it would be necessary for church members to cross the driveway from the north to south because the church owned property and building on either side of the easement.
The district court concluded that the "Letter of Agreement" is (a) ambiguous in that it does not specify or limit the intended use of the driveway, and (b) vague as to what was intended by language in the easement specifying "Kapphans will build, at their expense, an access road, suitable to their own specifications." Relying on the testimony and evidence submitted at trial, the district court: (1) granted respondents’ request for a permanent injunction, restraining appellant from unreasonably interfering with the special use for which the easement was acquired; (2) concluded that the easement was intended to be respondents’ private driveway; and (3) determined that a reasonable use of the driveway includes gating it and constructing guardrails or a fence.
D E C I S I O N
The grantee of an easement is entitled to a limited use or enjoyment of the land. Minneapolis Athletic Club v. Cohler, 287 Minn. 254, 258, 177 N.W.2d 786, 789 (1970) (citing Restatement of Property § 450 (1944)). The extent of an easement by grant is defined entirely by the construction of the terms of the grant. Highway 7 Embers v. Northwestern Nat’l Bank, 256 N.W.2d 271, 275 (Minn. 1977). Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law, which this court may determine without deference to the trial court’s decision. Blackburn, Nickels & Smith, Inc. v. Erickson, 366 N.W.2d 640, 643 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. June 24, 1985). "A written instrument is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible [to] more than one interpretation based on its language alone." In re petitions of Zahradka, 472 N.W.2d 153, 155 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Aug. 29, 1991) (citation omitted).
When the terms of an easement grant are unclear, extrinsic evidence may be used to aid in the interpretation of the easement grant; however, when the language granting the easement is clear and unambiguous, the court’s power to determine the extent of the easement granted is limited.
Bergh and Misson Farms, Inc. v. Great Lakes Transmission Co., 565 N.W.2d 23, 26 (Minn. 1997) (citation omitted). "‘Generally, an easement grant is to be strictly construed against the grantor.’" Bergh, 565 N.W.2d at 26 (quoting Romanchuk v. Plotkin, 215 Minn. 156, 160, 9 N.W.2d 421,424 (1943)). But "‘the extent of an easement should not be enlarged by legal construction beyond the objects originally contemplated or expressly agreed upon by the parties.’" Id. (quoting Minneapolis Athletic Club, 287 Minn. at 258, 177 N.W.2d at 789-90).
The "Letter of Agreement" provided that
3. Zion Lutheran Church, at its expense, will grant to Kapphans a perpetual ingress and egress easement across the surveyed 33-foot wide access.
4. Kapphans will build, at their expense, an access road, suitable to their own specifications, on the 33-foot wide access easement.
At the trial, respondent Daniel Kapphan admitted that there were no plans for a gate when construction began. Because the parties did not originally contemplate that the extent of the easement would include a gate, the easement cannot be enlarged by legal construction to allow respondents to gate the driveway. See id. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s decision allowing respondents to gate the driveway on the easement.
Next, we address whether the extent of the easement allows respondents to place guardrails along the driveway for safety purposes. Appellant admits that under some circumstances a guardrail may be necessary to ensure safe passage along the road, but argues that in this case respondents have not shown a necessity for the guardrails.
The letter of agreement provided that respondents could build an access road "suitable to their own specifications." While the extent of an easement should not extend beyond that which was originally contemplated, an easement grant is to be strictly construed against the grantor. Id. Kapphan testified that (a) guardrails are necessary for safety because at one point there is a 10-foot drop, and, therefore, use of the road is dangerous at times; and (b) if the gate is on their property line (instead of on the easement itself), it would not be visible to the public from the county road making it unsafe for people who drove down the driveway and had to turn around.
Because we conclude that guardrails may be considered an extension of the road, which was to be built according to respondents’ specifications, we affirm the decision with respect to guardrails. Additionally, we note that the district court retains jurisdiction "‘to amend, modify, or vacate’" the injunction in a situation "‘where the circumstances have changed and it is just and equitable to do so.’" Jacobson v. County of Goodhue, 539 N.W.2d 623, 625 (Minn. App. 1995) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. Jan. 12, 1991).
Affirmed in part and reversed in part. We note that the district court's order stated that a reasonable use of the driveway includes "constructing guardrails or a fence." The record, however, does not support this conclusion. In the district court's findings of fact, it concluded that "constructing guardrails along the fence" for safety "does not unreasonably interfere with [appellant's] use of the land." Because the record only supports the building of guardrails, we affirm with respect to guardrails only.