The issue arises from time to time of whether a private, contractual agreement trumps local zoning regulations. In Baccouche v. Blankenship, __ Cal. App. 4th __, No. B192291 (Second Appellate District, September 9, 2007), the California Court of Appeal held that a use authorized by an easement but prohibited by the zoning ordinance results in an unenforceable easement to the extent that the easement purports to allow an illegal use.
Baccouche, the Plaintiff, owned a 170,319 square foot lot in the Sunland area of the City of Los Angeles. Blankenship, the Defendant, owned a 22,000 square foot lot next to Plaintiff’s lot.
In 1994, Plaintiff’s predecessor had granted an "equine easement" to Defendant’s predecessor — the ability to keep and enjoy horses on the easement area of Plaintiff’s predecessor’s property.
Under the zoning ordinance, horses were an accessory use to a residential use; horses could not be kept on a parcel unless a residential use also was made of the parcel. Further, the lot must be at least 17,500 square feet.
Plaintiff’s property was vacant land; Defendant’s property was improved with a single-family residence.
Plaintiff wished to subdivide his property, but the equine easement presented an obstacle. He therefore sued Defendant to quiet title. The trial court ruled that the easement was valid and Defendant could keep horses on the easement area.
Under the zoning ordinance, horses could be kept only on a lot improved with a residence. Defendant’s lot had a residence, but Plaintiff’s lot did not. The court ruled that the easement was unenforceable because it purported to allow Defendant the right to keep horses on Plaintiff’s undeveloped lot, in violation of the zoning ordinance.
The court explained that easement agreements do not override zoning laws, which may restrict usage irrespective of the existence of an easement. As is true with virtually all land use, whether the grantee could actually use the property for the purposes stated in the easement is subject to compliance with zoning restrictions. Land use restrictions limiting the use of property, and a fee owner’s consent to such use, are distinct from each other, the court emphasized.
Here, Plaintiff’s predecessor had merely assented to the use of part of his property for equine purposes. Defendant retained a valid easement. But the easement was unenforceable insofar as it would allow a use in violation of the zoning ordinance, the court concluded.