On October 31, 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court decided Old Dominion Boat Club v. Alexandria City Council, et al. The case involved ongoing litigation between the Old Dominion Boat Club (ODBC), the City of Alexandria, and the owner of a restaurant along Union Street in Alexandria, regarding the continuing existence of a private easement in a public alley.
In 2010, the city granted the restaurant owners a special use permit to operate a restaurant in a storefront along Union Street, as well as the right to build an elevated deck in the adjacent alley. The deck would have obstructed much of the alley, known as Wales Alley. ODBC, however, claimed it was the beneficiary of an easement dating back to 1789 in Wales Alley to access the public streets. Although the fee simple interest in Wales Alley had been dedicated to the city years earlier and the city had paved and regulated parking in the alley, ODBC claimed its easement continued to exist and that the deck would obstruct ODBC’s use of its easement.
Because ODBC’s easement was created by deed, the court looked to the easement’s express purpose to determine whether it had been extinguished when Wales Alley was dedicated. The court found the express purpose of the easement was to “provide more easy communication with the public main streets.” The court noted that making Wales Alley public did not cause the easement’s purpose to cease. Instead, it simply “facilitates” the easement’s “ongoing purpose.” The court held that ODBC had a vested easement in Wales Alley that was not extinguished when Wales Alley was dedicated for public use. The court also sent to the case back to the trial court to award ODBC an injunction prohibiting the city or the restaurant from obstructing Wales Alley.
What this means for Virginia Property Owners
The case raises several interesting points for Virginia property owners. First, when purchasing property or undertaking zoning actions, it is important to check the title work and identify the easements affecting the property, especially where public dedications are needed to allow development, such as a subdivision. Title insurance becomes particularly important to protect property owners against unforeseen disturbances in using their land.
Second, if private easements might create hiccups in performing proper dedications or using a zoning entitlement, it is important to contact an attorney to determine whether the easement owners must also be engaged to move forward with the project.
Finally, the case raises an interesting question whether easement owners can prohibit the use of zoning entitlements whenever a new zoning permit is granted that might affect a private easement. In Virginia, property actions are generally subject to a five, 10, or 15-year statute of limitations. In many cases, it may well be that the statute of limitations has run, and the easement owner could not challenge issues affecting their easement. However, Old Dominion Boat Club appears to show that every new zoning entitlement may create a new statute of limitations for easement owners.