I have racked up a bunch of things I am curious about that I haven't had time recently to write about, but this one is leaping the queue. I was at a discussion group I attend on Monday nights yesterday evening, and the guest speaker was Terry Corwin, who is president of the Santa Cruz Land Trust. She was there to speak about various projects that the land trust is pursuing, but at the end spoke of one of the most common ways that the trust protects and preserves land. Simply put, they buy easements of a farmer's property and the farmer is free to use the land in whatever agricultural way they see fit, but they are restricted from selling it for development or other non-preservation practices.
This was all very interesting and I hadn't heard of the concept before, but what brought it to my attention again today was that this very concept appeared in my friend Leslie Karst's new mystery novel, Dying for a Taste. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the protagonist, Sally Solari, ends up in the Marin County area, talking to a farmer. How does the farmer support their organic vegetable enterprise? Why, easements of course. And Sally Solari proceeds to describe easements and their function in almost identical terms as Terry Corwin did.
I always find it intriguing when something I've gotten by not knowing about for my whole life gets mentioned twice in the space of less than 24 hours. So now that we know how easements function in land preservation, there's just one question.
What exactly is an easement?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word hails from the 14th century and meant even then compensation or redress. It's roots are in the Old French aisement, with its sense of comfort and convenience, use and enjoyment. The legal sense which we're talking about here, meaning the legal right or privilege of using something that is not one's own, comes from the early 15th century.
In the two agricultural/preservation senses that I've just come across, the concept of an easement sounds relatively simple to decipher, but having now looked at "Easement Basics" at a site called FindLaw.com , like most legal entities, there is a lot that is subject to interpretation. Here is the kind of legal logic from that website that I'm talking about:
For instance, if Alvin owns a piece of property and grants Barbara a right-of-way on the road across the property, Barbara has an easement in Alvin's property. Barbara may use the road, but may not stop others from also using the road, except to the extent that their use interferes with her own use of the road. Alvin may exclude everyone except Barbara from crossing his property, while continuing to use the road himself. - See more at: http://realestate.findlaw.com/land-use-laws/easement-basics.html#sthash.ncguedvL.dpuf
As the website makes more than clear, Barbara and Alvin's problems are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resolving disputes over easements, which are often recorded in documents which may be vague or not have foreseen all the issues that might arise overtime. If you think about the Supreme Court and how the justices often puzzle over what constitutes the Founders' Original Intent, you can probably get a glimpse of the scope of the problem.