Legal Issues Affecting Entry on Another’s Land to Access Water Lines and Meters

What happens when water lines or meters are located on a neighbor’s property?  Do you have rights or obligations as to when and how you can access your water meters and lines?  Are lines and meters not on your property even considered yours? Read on to learn about the legal barriers to entry on another’s land to access water lines and meters.

1. Easements and the Recorded Instrument

If there is a question regarding property rights, one should always first look at the deed to the property (and any covenants or contracts associated therewith).  The deed will almost always describe the basic rights attached to the property, including those pertaining to water.

Deeds often contain easements expressly granting access to property for the purpose of maintaining or repairing water lines and meters.  Should a dispute over access arise and make its way to court, the language of the easement will be key.  Absent an express easement, a court will attempt to determine if one can be reasonably implied.

Courts interpret easements narrowly. This limits the use of any easement to reasonable applications. For example, giving notice of entry and not destroying your neighbor's property to access lines and meters is reasonable. Building a walkway on your neighbor’s land to reach the easement would probably not be seen as reasonable.

Often, the obligations of easements cut both ways. Neighbors may not harmfully interfere with your water rights. If the water in question comes from a public utility, the easement is almost certainly a matter of public record. If the water comes from a private source on the neighbor’s property, the neighbor may have more latitude to “interfere” with your water supply. Quite apart from lines and meters, this interference is a matter of riparian rights (the legal term for water rights). Note, however, that “not interfering with” is not the same thing as “facilitating” or even “allowing” repairs and changes.”  Your neighbor is likely under no obligation to be helpful or cooperative.

Public utilities usually record their easements over someone’s property above (water lines) or below (electric lines) their pipes or wires. When utilities have an easement, they have an actual right to enter on the land described in the easement to perform maintenance work. Even when there is no actual easement, there are a variety of laws, municipal codes and even common law precedents that prevent property owners from interfering with public water. Private property owners generally cannot interfere with a public water supply.  Owners cannot cut off, tax or limit access to water any more than a neighbor could cut off access to the electrical power simply because the lines run through his or her backyard.

Even in a public water situation, however, a neighbor does not necessarily need to allow people unimpeded access—including utility personnel, contractors, or you—onto his or her land for non-emergent maintenance or other work. Property rights carry a great deal of force; even though the neighbor may be precluded from actively interfering, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t passively (or passive-aggressively) cause problems by simply refusing access to his or her land. When there’s a non-emergency “need” to do so, it would be difficult to force the issue. And even emergency maintenance could be reasonably delayed while the utility seeks a court order.

2. Common Law Rights

Courts have been ruling on water and property access issues for hundreds of years.  There is a robust body of common law relating to such matters, and it grows almost daily.  Some principles of the common law have remained largely unchanged since their inception.

The distinction between reasonable and unreasonable access is a common law principle. Courts also look to “necessity.” If an easement would be the only way to protect the usability of property, the court might find an easement of necessity, so long as it does not unfairly burden the neighboring property owner.

Even if gaining access is relatively painless, having your water line and meter on a neighbor’s property can be burdensome. Depending on the history of the property—for example, if the two lots were subdivided from one larger lot at some point in the past—a court may be convinced to find and grant an easement where one had not formally existed.  However, going to court to demand an easement over your neighbor’s property is undesirable.

The history and use of the land is taken into consideration. If an easement is not recorded, but exists due to long-standing use, the court may formally create the easement. Changes in facts may also change the ability to use the easement. An easement originally designed to aid a single-family home may no longer be reasonable in the case of commercial or multi-family developments.

If the water comes from a well on the neighbor’s property, the situation gets worse. If there was an explicit easement granting access, it will probably be enforced. A contract will also be enforced if it was signed by the current tenant or properly assigned to him or her—but if it wasn’t assigned, it may be unenforceable (you can’t enforce someone else’s contract). Depending upon the property’s history, a court may be persuaded to find that an easement did, does, or should exist.

Conclusion

The laws regarding water easements are (forgive the pun) fluid.  But possession of an explicit, recorded interest will afford you the greatest protection under the law.

Having your water line and meter on another’s property is not ideal. In the event that easements, legal remedies and simple conversations still can’t resolve any access issues, your last resort will likely be to relocate the meters and lines to your property.