Today, in Southwestern Electric Power Company v. Lynch et al., the Texas Supreme Court decided a hotly contested case regarding the interpretation of “general easements.” In Texas, the term “general easement” (sometimes referred to as a “blanket easement”) is often used to describe an easement without a fixed width. In today’s ruling, the Court held that “[t]he use of a general easement without a fixed width is a strategic decision that does not render an easement ambiguous or require a court to supply the missing term.” (Southwestern Electric Power Company v. Lynch, No. 18-0768, at 20 (Tex. February 28, 2020)). This is a significant decision, as general easements have historically been used widely by electric utilities, pipeline companies, and other entities as tools that allow flexibility to account for future growth, innovation, and development.
In the Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) case, several landowners filed a declaratory judgment action against SWEPCO, asking the trial court to declare that SWEPCO’s prior use of certain transmission line easements across their respective tracts of land limited the width of SWEPCO’s general easements to thirty feet. The trial court ruled in favor of the landowners, and the Texarkana Court of Appeals affirmed.
Although the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals, in part, on jurisdictional grounds, the Court reversed court of appeals’ decision and rendered judgment for SWEPCO in regard to the scope of the easements at issue. In arriving at its decision, the Court stated:
“Consistent with the recognition of general easements in Texas, courts have long been reluctant to write fixed widths into easements when the parties to the easements never agreed to a particular width . . . We see no reason to disturb this Court’s and the courts of appeals’ long-standing treatment of general easements in Texas.”
Id. at 18-19 (internal citations omitted).
Moreover, the Court recognized that “[i]f the easement’s terms are ascertainable and can be given legal effect, courts will not supplant the easement’s express terms with additional terms nor consult extrinsic evidence to discern the easement’s meaning.” Id. at 19. While the Court unequivocally sided with SWEPCO in regard to the easement interpretation issue, the Court did note that its holding does not mean that the affected landowners “are without recourse as to SWEPCO’s future use of the easements. The holder of a general easement must utilize the land in a reasonable manner and only to an extent that is reasonably necessary.” Id. at 21.
As energy providers throughout Texas continue to navigate the rapid growth of the State, along with aging infrastructure subject to sometimes very old easements, today’s decision will help provide some clarity for the landscape moving forward.
Meet the Authors
Noah M. Galton and W. Brad Anderson are partners in the Austin office of Jackson Walker, where they have developed a large emphasis in the area of eminent domain, and have regularly been asked to opine on the issue of easement interpretation. Noah and Brad have extensive experience assisting a wide array of condemning authorities with large-scale land acquisition projects aimed at expanding critical infrastructure throughout the State of Texas, including electricity providers, oil/gas midstream companies, railroads, municipal utility districts, regional mobility authorities, municipalities, and independent school districts. Over the past several years, Noah and Brad have prosecuted numerous eminent domain lawsuits to jury verdict and have appeared in dozens of special commissioners’ hearings across the State. Noah and Brad are regularly asked to speak on the topic of eminent domain, and have also given guest lectures on the topic at the University of Texas School of Law.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.