Easement Options
January 9, 2008 6:50 AM   Subscribe

The city in which I live called me this morning and "asked" me if I would be willing to create a 10' x 10' easement in my front yard. This 10'x 10' section will be more than 25% percent of my yard given up to the city for electrical boxes. They offered me $100. What are my options??
posted by thepressdelete to Law & Government (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
  1. Say yes.
  2. Say no.
  3. Don't respond.
I have a hard time thinking of other options. Why is "asked" in scare quotes—did they imply your legs would be broken if you said no? What city is this?
posted by grouse at 6:54 AM on January 9, 2008

$100 seems like a pretty low price for 10 square feet of your property. What is your land worth per square foot? How will this affect your land value should you decide to sell (how many buyers would like the yard with electrical boxes in it)? I think you need to contact a lawyer. The least you deserve is a much higher price than $100. It just seems wrong.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:55 AM on January 9, 2008

IANAL, but I would think that the value would be much higher than that. Consider the impact on the sale value of the property, consider the actual value (for tax purposes) of the property after the installation. You should at least have a Realtor give you a 'what if' appraisal. Base your offer on that number, and if you do decide to sell the land you should ask for a tax abatement on that property, and a reappraisal of your now lower valued property for real estate tax purposes.
posted by Gungho at 6:57 AM on January 9, 2008

Even if the land can be taken via eminent domain, the city still has to pay you fair market value for the land. I'm pretty sure that $100 is not FMV, no matter where you are. I would say "no," and if the city persists, then get a lawyer.
posted by amro at 6:59 AM on January 9, 2008

They can do it without your consent, in which case you'd get nothing. Your real issue is not whether or not to agree, but how much compensation to ask for. $100 for 25% of your property seems extremely low. You can ask a real estate agent for an appraisal on your property, and come up with a counteroffer.

If you are uncooperative, and they have a choice, they may not bother with you, and ask your neighbor for the easement instead.

But, it all depends on where you live and what your city's laws are.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:59 AM on January 9, 2008

Oh wait, an easement. Disregard my previous comment. I thought they wanted to buy the land.
posted by amro at 7:01 AM on January 9, 2008

You should counter offer. If push comes to shove they're going to take the easement. The only wiggle room you have is the compensation.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:01 AM on January 9, 2008

Get a lawyer
posted by Ironmouth at 7:05 AM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: grouse, asked is in scare quotes because I'm under the assumption that them asking is a formality. But then again, I don't have any idea what my rights are here. If I say no, I'm scared they're just going to force me to do it for free...

We were hoping to sell our house this year. Should I expect the difference in value?
posted by thepressdelete at 7:06 AM on January 9, 2008

Nthing the 'lawyer up' comments. Yes, this will affect your property value adversely.
posted by uaudio at 7:11 AM on January 9, 2008

and 10' X 10' is a 100 square feet, not 10 square feet. Lawyer up as this will reduce the value of your property by more than 25% of the value.
posted by zia at 7:17 AM on January 9, 2008

The price should be the difference between the value of the property as it now is and the value of the property with this easement and electrical boxes. In the UK I'd get a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to provide me with valuations. If there's a similar body in the US, I'd contact them to obtain details of experienced appraisers in your area.

Once you've got your valuations, you'll be in a stronger position to negotiate.
posted by essexjan at 7:22 AM on January 9, 2008

Get a lawyer who deals with the city planning commission a lot as they'll know who to yell at.
posted by aerotive at 7:23 AM on January 9, 2008

You want a real estate lawyer. An easement essentially means that the City does not have to get your permission to enter or undertake construction projects in the 10x10 area. You don't want this. Easements frequently have the side effect of attracting all sort of other utility fixtures because "hey, we already have an easement here, might as well put that valve there".

In theory the city could take the easement, but if you lawyer up they will mostly likely back off. It may have the effect of pushing it into a neighbor's yard, but those are the breaks.
posted by electroboy at 7:29 AM on January 9, 2008

Nth-ing lawyer up and counter-offer. The city can (and will) use the space if they want it, but the-powers-that-be will lob a low offer at the start.

--ex-wife of a commonwealth right-of-way agent
posted by bonobo at 7:33 AM on January 9, 2008

This will lower the value of your property significantly. Especially in this real estate market, buyers probably won't even want to look at a property with an eyesore plopped into the front yard taking up 100 square feet.

I would have a 3 realtors give you estimates on the before and after value of your house, average out the difference, and ask for that amount.

I would also try to insist that they move it to the BACK yard if they can. Curb appeal is pretty important.
posted by Ostara at 7:52 AM on January 9, 2008

nthing the lawyer. They have to pay you something as per the 5th amendment to the Consitution (I'm assuming you're in the US). The legal term is "takings" - as in, "a permanent physical occupation of property is a taking" (Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp, 1982).

I am not a lawyer; I do have a Master's degree in urban planning.
posted by desjardins at 8:05 AM on January 9, 2008

I think I'd like to clarify some things that it seems like people, and perhaps myself, are misinterpreting, based on my reading of the question:
1) 10'x10' is indeed 100 square feet.
2) 100 square feet is apparently 25% of the yard--is it a quarter of the front yard or a quarter of the whole property?
3) An easement does not mean that the City is actually purchasing the land. thepressdelete will still own the land in question, and will be able to do certain things in that land based on what's required for the easement (like, landscaping and stuff), but basically won't be able to build there. If the zoning code in the area has a floor area ratio requirement, that land will still be able to be counted towards the total lot size.

So, I don't have an answer for the question of "is this a good deal or not", but I can offer some ideas on how to think about it. I'm going to assume that this will be some sort of utility easement, which would probably mean that if the City gets it, it'll be located right next to the street on your front property line, so that the City can access it without having to cross your property. If that's the case, you may not be able to improve upon that land anyway, depending on the front yard setbacks in your area, so it's possible that you wouldn't really be losing anything by allowing the easement. However, the scenario brought up by electroboy is a concern, where the City might just start throwing a bunch of junk in your front yard. I think that would be the only real negative to allowing the easement. If it's an electrical easement, you're probably going to end up with a transformer sitting in your front yard, which will probably be about 3'x3', with access space around it. Some people don't like looking at those things, but you may not mind.

At this point the City may just need a transformer in the area, possibly not at your exact location, so they might be calling a bunch of your neighbors and making them the same offer that you got. If one of your neighbors accepts the offer, they may not need to do anything on your property. $100 sounds kind of low to me, for something that will essentially be a permanent fixture of your front yard, but someone might take the offer.

If assumptions about the location of the easement and what's going in it are correct, the only way it would really have an effect on your property value is that some people would consider the transformer to be an eyesore, and possibly a nuisance if it needs frequent maintenance. Otherwise, I'd guess that you're not really able to do anything with the land in question anyway, so it's pretty much a wash.
posted by LionIndex at 8:09 AM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, this is been an amazing help!!

Per all your advice, I think I'm going to find a lawyer. I live in Michigan and I need all the help I can get in selling my property.

It's good to verify that $100 is indead a low-ball offer. Thanks.
posted by thepressdelete at 8:16 AM on January 9, 2008

I would also try to insist that they move it to the BACK yard if they can. Curb appeal is pretty important.

This is probably not possible or desirable. The reason for having it in the front yard is so that the easement and whatever equipment is in it can be accessed from the street. Unless you have an alley in back, putting the easement in the back yard would then require an additional access easement to be able to get to the easement where the equipment is. That easement would really fuck things up and make portions of the lot unbuildable.

I'd check with the City on it, but I'm pretty sure that what they're planning on putting in is basically a 3' wide by 3' long by 2' high metal box (maybe a little bigger or smaller, but that's close to the basic residential area transformer size), with a space allowance so that they can actually get to it.
posted by LionIndex at 8:16 AM on January 9, 2008

I work for a municipality as an engineer and if this happened to me I would probably do the following. I would ask for a yearly fee to be credited on my taxes. Base that on the percentage of the area of your property which is being used for that easement. So if the easement uses 5% of your property and your land is assessed at 25% of your assessed property value and your annual property tax is $5000 then you should ask for $63 credit per year. I also would ask that the electrical boxes be underground and invisible.
posted by JJ86 at 8:19 AM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

They can do it without your consent, in which case you'd get nothing.

Are you sure about this? "Takings" occur when there is no economically viable use of that land left. If they put up an electrical box, the property owner's potential use of that land goes away. But I'm just a schmoe who took land use law, and if this electrical box question is common enough, I'm sure it's been decided. I assumed they were going to take it via eminent domain. Anyway, I think a land use or real estate lawyer is who you want to be asking these questions to.
posted by salvia at 8:27 AM on January 9, 2008

Can you negotiate with the city to sell the property first then let the city work with the next owner?
posted by plinth at 8:27 AM on January 9, 2008

Should you decide to grant the easement be sure to include language in the deed that restricts the utility improvements to those that are below grade. Above ground boxes, transformers, etc. really affect the curb appeal of the home. Don’t let them tell you that below grade is impossible. It is not. It is just more expensive.
posted by mrleec at 8:42 AM on January 9, 2008

if you don't accept their offer, they still have to go through the eminent domain process, you'll have the right to go to court and have the court determine the overall diminution in value to your property. eminent domain applies when the city just wants an easement, equally as when it wants title. the poster above who said you would get nothing has no business answering questions of this nature. $100 strikes me as a ridiculous lowball, even for michigan.
posted by bruce at 8:51 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

As LionIndex said, they may be calling other people too. Far be it from me to tell people they shouldn't call a lawyer, but maybe you should wait until there is more indication that they are planning to condemn your land. I suppose you could always ask them.
posted by grouse at 8:58 AM on January 9, 2008

My parents dealt with something very similar a few years ago, though not in Michigan. The initial offer was, indeed, ridiculously low ball, $500 to cut a 15 x 100 foot swath through the back of their property for a sewer line. My parents' counter offer was $5000, plus approval for every single tree to be cut down, plus the replanting of trees along the border of the easement, plus connection to the sewer (they'd been on a septic system). The counter offer was accepted with little discussion.

My dad was an architect, and was used to dealing with such things from the other side, so he didn't get a lawyer. But, yeah, if it were me, I'd be making some calls. Sure, they may be able to take the land anyway, but they want to avoid court and all those associated costs.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:59 AM on January 9, 2008

They can do it without your consent, in which case you'd get nothing.

This is not true.

Glad you're getting a lawyer!
posted by miss tea at 9:58 AM on January 9, 2008

You definitely need more details about what they're planning to put in that 10' x 10' easement. I don't know you're in eminent danger of going to court over this - most likely they've also called your neighbors to toss them the same low-ball price.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 10:34 AM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: As I eluded to before, I'm overwhelmed by the great advice here. Thanks.

I need to know more about this easement. If it's an option to put it all underground, like many have mentioned, I'd be much more willing to comply.

And if I can specify a Grade level, like mrleec said, I could potentially not have to worry about future eye sores and loss of curb appeal.

If I could do all that and counter offer like MrMoonPie suggests, maybe I could make this mess worth my while...
posted by thepressdelete at 11:31 AM on January 9, 2008

No one has suggested yet that you might try calling the city and asking questions...

+ What is this for? Why do you want it?
+ Why me?
+ Are you asking my neighbors the same question? Just two or three, or everyone on my block, or what?
+ How many of these easements are created each year?
+ Do I have a right to say "no"?
+ If I say no, what's the consequence or next step? Will you move forward with plans anyway but it will just be a more difficult process?

Remember to have a pen in hand and to take good notes!

Since a lawyer and lawsuit may come to pass, remember not to tell them anything or give them info, just be in question-asking mode.
posted by quinoa at 2:24 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Absolutely call and talk to the city about this, without committing to anything; information is free. Then decide if it's worth getting a lawyer involved. To be perfectly clear, the city is not just entitled to take an easement without due process and compensation. They're making a ridiculous low-ball offer on the chance that you or one of your neighbors will make life easy for them. You can make a counter-offer, or you can refuse; then, if they still need your land, they'll have to acquire the easement by eminent domain (eminent domain law applies whether the taking is fee simple -- all the rights of the land -- or partial fee, as with an easement). Assuming they follow all the rules required of eminent domain proceedings (they usually do), they CAN at this point condemn the parcel for the easement, and the only matter left to be decided is what constitutes just compensation. You'd be entitled to the fair market value of the taking (the value of the 10x10 easement) plus the diminution in value of the remainder of the property (how much less your property is worth with this chunk missing). Where I'm unfortunately hazy is whether the most likely use of the adjoining easement is taken into account when calculating the diminution in value of your remaining property. I'm pretty sure it is. But then, I'm only pretty sure about most of this. I'm a student, not a lawyer (not even a student of law!), so if you talk to the city and can't come to a mutual agreement, you should seek advice from a qualified professional.
posted by Chris4d at 3:13 PM on January 9, 2008

The state is famous for low-ball offers around where I live.

This article may be helpful:

DURHAM - The owner of a gas station won a land dispute with the state Transportation Department this week when a jury awarded $995,000 -- 66 times what the state was offering.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 4:54 PM on January 9, 2008

They can do it without your consent, in which case you'd get nothing.

This is not true.

Seconding that...

I have a hard time believing the city will be able to simply take the land (which, by reducing your rights to the property, they are doing, in a very real sense) without compensation. Surely you're entitled to the fair market value of the rights you're surrendering, which, for an easement, would presumably be somewhat less than the value of the land outright.
posted by Shiva88 at 8:40 PM on January 9, 2008

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