Price v. Eastham

This is the third time this prescriptive easement case has been to the Supreme Court. In 1978 Thomas Price purchased an agricultural interest from the State of Alaska in land located at the head of Kachemak Bay. A group of snowmachiners had used a seismic trail that crosses the land for a number of years. After Price posted “No Trespassing” signs on his property in the winter of 1998-99, Eastham and almost another one hundred snowmachiners sued Price alleging that they had established an easement by prescription before Price posted the signs. The earlier appeals established that the snowmachiners had a prescriptive easement but struggled with its size and who was entitled to use it.

In the current appeal the superior court had determined that the public entitled to use the easement included not only the snowmobilers but four-wheelers, hikers, persons training their sled dogs, occupants of residences along the trail, hunters, and berry pickers. The Supreme Court rejects this expansion. It points out that although the prescriptive easement has been determined to be public, that does not mean that the public can use it other than for snowmobile use. The other uses would depend upon independently proving the right to a prescriptive easement or obtaining the permission of the land owner.

Another issues was whether the uses of the easement, particularly volume, seasonality, and width, had unduly expanded beyond the use during the original prescriptive period. In
reviewing these issues, the Supreme Court sets forth the general principle that although the use made of a prescriptive easement may evolve beyond the original prescriptive uses, new uses
cannot substantially increase the burden on the servient estate or change the nature and character of the easement’s original use.

The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s determination that the volume of showmachine traffic had not unreasonably increased. It remanded for a determination of seasonal use rejecting the superior court’s not doing so because of possible impact on nonsnowmachine users. It affirmed the superior court’s determination that the snowmachiners reasonable use of the trail included marking and maintaining it.

The width of the easement continues to be an issue. The only uncontested evidence of width during the prescriptive period is the eight feet necessary for one lane of snowmachine travel. I f the easement’s use has evolved to require widening the path, the superior court on remand must make specific findings as to the reasonableness and necessity of increasing the width of the easement. Finally, the Supreme Court rules that AS 09.45.052(d) vesting public access prescriptive easements in the state or a political subdivision of it does not apply since it was enacted in 2003 after the prescriptive easement here was perfected.

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