Wisconsin Supreme Court Sides With Transmission Line Company in Easement Dispute

October 26, 2017

The Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified a transmission line company’s rights to trim and remove trees under an easement originally recorded in 1969 in Garza v. American Transmission Co., 2017 WI 35 (April 13, 2017). In Garza, an easement was granted to the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (WPSC) in 1969 that gave WPSC the “perpetual right…to erect, maintain and operate an electric transmission line, comprising wood pole structures….”  The same easement gave WPSC the right to enter the property from time to time to clear all brush and trees within 40 feet of each side of the transmission line.

Fast forward nearly three decades to 1995 when WPSC replaced the wood pole structures supporting the transmission line with steel poles.  WPSC then assigned the easement to American Transmission Company (ATC) in 2001.  The Garzas subsequently purchased the subject property in 2004 and were made aware of the 1969 easement.  In 2010, ATC advised the Garzas they were going to remove trees and brush on their property that was within 40 feet of the centerline of the transmission line.  The Garzas opposed this request and a lawsuit was filed in 2011 in Waupaca County Circuit Court.  The Garzas argued the 1969 easement was no longer in existence because the easement limited the transmission line to being constructed on wood pole structures. The Circuit Court found in ATC’s favor and determined the change from wood poles to steel poles did not invalidate the easement.  However, the Court of Appeals reversed and found in favor of the Garzas.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Court of Appeals finding that the easement’s language “comprising wood pole structures is language of description, not circumscription.”  Thus, the easement did not limit the transmission line to being constructed only on wood poles.  Rather, the easement permitted ATC the right to make the change from wood poles to steel poles. The Supreme Court found that the change from wood to steel poles was “a reasonable change made in order to take advantage of developments in technology.”  The Supreme Court, however, placed some limitations on this right:  The holder of the dominant estate’s right to take advantage of changes in technology is not unlimited and the dominant estate may not cause unreasonable damage to the servient estate.  Because the change from wood poles to steel poles did not cause an undue burden on the Garzas, the court upheld the 1969 easement.  Indeed, the use of steel poles resulted in fewer poles near the Garza’s property because steel poles allow for longer spans between structures than wood poles.

The Garza decision is a victory for transmission line companies and other utilities that acquire easements over property because it allows them to take advantage of changes in technology without invalidating the easement.  Transmission line companies will no longer have to worry about invalidating an easement when making technological changes to the line unless the change unreasonably increases the burden on the landowner.  Landowners are not left without protection, however, and any change that causes a significant impact on their property will not be permitted.