Va. Holds Easement by Necessity May be Modified as Reasonably Necessary to Widen Access Road to Allow Tractor Trailers

In Palmer v. R.A. Yancy Lumber, the Supreme Court of Virginia addressed the creation and expansion of an easement by necessity for an access road (the “Access Road”) that served a 317-acre landlocked parcel.  The Court determined that an easement could be modified as “reasonably necessary” to benefit the landlocked parcel, so long as it did not unreasonably burden the underlying property, i.e., the servient estate.  The Court further affirmed the expansion of the easement and widening of the Access Road to allow tractor trailers to access the landlocked property for timbering and timber-related activity.

In allowing expansion of the easement, the Court rejected the argument of the servient estate’s landowner (“Servient Landowner”) that an implied easement, including an easement by necessity, was fixed in time to its original location.  Rather, the Court held that as a matter of law, the trial court had the authority to grant the owner of the dominant estate, i.e., the landlocked parcel, the right to widen an established easement by necessity without the servient owner’s consent. 

A copy of the opinion is available here.  


Both landowners in the easement dispute traced the origins of their respective parcels from a common owner, and the parties did not dispute the creation of an easement by necessity for ingress and egress over the Servient Landowner’s property for the benefit of the landlocked parcel, so that it could access the public road.  Such access included access for timbering and timber-related activity, and the parties stipulated that the ability to timber was reasonably necessary for enjoyment of the landlocked property, even though the property was last timbered in the late 1980s.

In preparing to harvest the timber, the owner of the landlocked parcel sought to widen the easement in order to use tractor-trailers, to which the owner of the Neighboring Property objected.  Expert testimony opined that tractor trailers were necessary for timbering the landlocked parcel, which necessitated the widening of the Access Road.  The trial court ruled in favor of modifying and expanding the easement, the Servient Landowner appealed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed in a reported decision.


The Court agreed that an implied easement by necessity was created when the common owner subdivided and created the landlocked parcel, which inherently provided the dominant landlocked estate with “whatever is reasonably to facilitate the beneficial use of [the] land. . . .” Op. at 13 (quoting Keen v. Paragon Jewel Coal Co.,, 203 Va. 175, 179 (1961) (“A way of necessity is an easement arising from an implied grant or implied reservation . . . whenever a party conveys property, he conveys whatever is necessary for the beneficial use of that property, and retains whatever is necessary for the beneficial use of land he still possesses.”)).

The Court noted that “[u]nder Virginia law, it has long been the rule that the ‘necessity’ is ‘not a physical or absolute necessity but a reasonable and practicable necessity.’” Op. at 14.  To this end, the Court determined that use of an easement by necessity is not limited to the purposes it was initially adapted for at the time of creation, but “may increase to meet the increased necessities of the property . . . .”  Op. at 15 (quoting Keen, 203 Va. at 180).

The determination of reasonable necessity, the Court held, requires balancing the interests of the affected landowners, including consideration of interests of the servient landowner.  “[A]s a matter of law, under the “reasonable necessity rule” the width of an existing easement by necessity may be expanded without the consent of the servient landowner.  We also hold, however, that the limiting principle underlying this rule dictates that modifications to such easements for the beneficial enjoyment of the dominant estate must not create unreasonable burdens on the servient estate.  Accordingly, when adjudicating a dispute over such proposed modifications, as here, the trial court must balance the benefits and burdens relative to both estates in deciding upon what modifications, if any, will be approved.”  Op. at 18.

The Court then determined that the trial court’s expansion of the easement was supported by the evidence, thereby rejecting the Servient Landowner’s argument that the use of tractor-trailers unreasonably burdened the servient property, noting that the standard was not “absolute necessity,” but rather, whether such use was reasonable and practical.  Op. at 20.  The Court noted that expert testimony indicated that tractor-trailers as opposed to ten wheel logging trucks were the most efficient way to haul logs over the Access Road, the only way to haul full length pine logs, and was industry standard.  Moreover, use of smaller trucks would require an additional 222 trips to the sawmill, thus causing significant additional traffic.  Further, the sawmill itself was designed to handle full-length logs. 

The Court also determined that modification of the easement to widen the Access Road was supported by the evidence.   Notably, the widening of the Access Road occurred in three limited locations, prevented trucks from tacking off the side of the road, eliminated erosion, and permitted the tractor-trailers a straighter, easier means of travel.  See Op. at 24.  Moreover, such modifications would have been necessary, even if ten-wheel trucks were used instead of the tractor trailers.  See Op. at 25.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the modification of the easement, and widening of the Access Road.