reasonable use doctrine
It’s a common problem in Ohio: a dispute between two neighbors over connecting to a subsurface drainage tile system that crosses property lines. Can one neighbor cut off the other neighbor's access to a tile? Can one go onto the other’s property to maintain the tile? If one replaces their system, can they still connect to the other’s tile? Answers to neighbor drainage questions can be, like subsurface water, a little murky. But a recent appeals court decision on a Licking County drainage dispute provides a few clear answers.
The drainage system at issue. Landowner Foor’s clay subsurface drainage system had been on his farm for over fifty years. Foor’s system connected to a larger drainage tile that ran across neighbor Helfrich’s property and eventually emptied into a pond on Helfrich's land. Foor and his predecessors had uused and maintained the line on Helfrich’s property prior to Helfrich’s ownership.
The dispute. Foor planned to replace his old system and also offered to replace the tile he connected to on neighbor Helfrich’s property. Helfrich refused the replacement. During installation of Foor’s tile, Helfrich dug up the tile area near the boundary and filled the hole with rocks and refuse, after which water welled up and flowed over the properties rather than through the tile on Helfrich’s property. Foor installed a standpipe on his side of the boundary. Helrich filed a complaint against Foor, claiming that Foor’s drainage was excessive and harmful. Foor responded by asking the court to establish his rights to a drainage easement and irrevocable license to use the property where the tile ran across Helfrich’s property. A jury ruled in favor of Foor, awarding him $30,000 in damages and both an easement and irrevocable license where the tile ran across Helfrich’s property.
The appeal. The Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed two conclusions on the drainage rights of the two neighbors:
- First, the court held that Foor’s replacement of the pre-existing subsurface drainage system was not an "alteration" of the flow of surface water that would trigger Ohio’s “reasonable use” rule for drainage. The reasonable use rule allows a legal claim when an alteration of surface water flow causes an unreasonable interference with someone’s property. Because the newly installed tile did not increase the amount of water draining from Foor’s property and maintained the same amount of drainage that had occurred for over fifty years, the court concluded there was no “alteration” of surface water flow. Without an alteration, the reasonable use rule did not apply and Helfrich did not have a claim against Foor based on the reasonable use rule.
- Second, the court refused to overturn the jury’s award of a drainage easement and irrevocable license across Helfrich’s land to Foor. Helfrich argued there was not sufficient evidence for the jury’s verdict but the court disagreed. The jury determined that an “easement by estoppel” existed when Helfrich purchased the property, based on evidence that the easement was apparent and not hidden to Helfrich when he purchased the property; that Foor and his predecessors relied on the drainage access and had previously repaired the tile on the neighboring property; and that the prior owners of the Helfrich property had gone along with Foor’s maintenance and use of the drainage tile on their land. Likewise, the court held there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that the previous owners of the Helfrich property had granted the prior owners of the Foor property a “license” or right to enter their property and maintain the tile. The jury determined that substantial investment by Foor and his predecessors suggested that the license was intended to be permanent, and the appeals court found that sufficient evidence also existed to support that conclusion.
How does this affect future drainage disputes between neighbors? The Fifth District decision provides useful precedent for the difficult questions neighbor drainage disputes raise. The case supports the argument that a landowner has a legal right to maintain a subsurface drainage system that crosses property lines. As long as there is not an “alteration” of surface water flow and history shows prior use, reliance, and maintenance of the connecting tile line on a neighbor’s property, a landowner can be in a strong legal position for continued use and maintenance of the tile. Will other appellate courts agree with the Fifth District’s analysis, or will Helfrich ask the Ohio Supreme Court to review the decision? Answers to those questions, like subsurface water, are a little murky.
Read the Fifth Appellate District's decision in Helfrich v. Foor Family Investments.
We can count on legal questions about surface water drainage to flow steadily in the Spring, and this year is no exception. Spring rains can cause drainage changes made on one person’s land to show up as harm on another’s land. When that happens, is the person who altered the flow of surface water liable for that harm? Possibly. Here is a reminder of how Ohio law deals with surface water drainage problems and allocates liability for drainage interferences, followed by guidance on how to deal with a drainage dispute.
Ohio law allows landowners to change surface water drainage
Back in 1980, the Ohio Supreme Court adopted a new rule for resolving surface water disputes in the case of McGlashan v. Spade Rockledge. Previous Ohio law treated water as a “common enemy” to be pushed onto others, then absolutely prohibited any land changes that would increase surface water drainage for lower landowners. In McGlashan, the Court replaced these old laws with the “reasonable use rule” that remains the law in Ohio. The rule states that landowners do have a right to interfere with the natural flow of surface waters on their property, even if those changes are to the detriment of other landowners. But the right to alter drainage is limited to only those actions that are “reasonable.”
Drainage changes must be “reasonable”
Although it allows drainage changes, the reasonable use doctrine also states that landowners incur liability when their interference with surface water drainage is “unreasonable.” What does that mean? The law contains factors that help clarify when an interference is unreasonable, a determination made on a case-by-case basis. The factors attempt to balance the need for the land use change that altered drainage against the negative impacts that change has on other landowners. A court will examine four factors to determine whether the drainage change is unreasonable: the utility of the land use, the gravity of the harm, the practicality of avoiding that harm, and unfairness to other landowners. For example, if a land use change has low utility but causes drainage harm to other landowners, or the landowner could take measures to prevent unfair harm to others, a court might deem the landowner’s interference with drainage as “unreasonable.”
What to do if a neighbor’s drainage is causing harm?
The unfortunate reality of the reasonable use doctrine is that it requires litigation, forcing the harmed party to file an action claiming that the neighbor has acted unreasonably. Before jumping into litigation, other actions might resolve the problem. An important first step is to understand the physical nature of the problem. Can the cause of the increased flow be remedied with physical changes? Is there a simple change that could reduce the interference, or is there need for a larger-scale drainage solution? Identifying the source of the harm and the magnitude of the drainage need can lead to solutions. Involving the local soil and water conservation district or a drainage engineer might be necessary.
Based on the significance of the solutions necessary to eliminate the problem, several options are available:
- If identified changes would remedy the problem, a talk with a drainage expert or a letter from an attorney explaining the reasonable use doctrine and demanding the changes could encourage the offending landowner to resolve the problem. If the landowner still refuses to remedy the problem, litigation is the last resort. The threat of litigation often spurs people into action.
- Sometimes the issue is one that requires collaboration by multiple landowners. Identifying a solution and sharing its costs among landowners, based on acreage draining into the area, can be a way to solve the problem.
- For more substantial drainage problems, a petition for a drainage improvement with the soil and water conservation district or the county engineer might be necessary. Petitioned drainage improvements involve all landowners in the affected area and are financed through assessments on land within that area. A visit with those agencies would determine whether a petition improvement is necessary and if so, how to proceed with the petition.
- For smaller fixes, a landowner always has the option of filing a claim for damages through the small claims court. The estimated damages or repairs must fall below the $6,000 limit for small claims. A landowner can make the claim without the assistance of an attorney, and the dispute could be resolved more quickly through this forum.
As the Spring rains continue, keep in mind that the reasonable use doctrine sets a guideline for Ohio landowners: make only reasonable changes to your surface water drainage and don’t cause an unreasonable drainage problem for your neighbors. Where changes and interferences are unreasonable and landowners are unwilling to resolve them, the reasonable use doctrine is the last resort that provides the legal remedy for resolving the problem.
For more information on Ohio drainage law, refer to our law bulletin on Surface Water Drainage Rights.
New law bulletin explains Ohio surface water drainage law
The drainage of surface water is undoubtedly important to agricultural landowners. A question we often hear is whether someone can interfere with the surface water drainage on someone else’s property. The answer to this question lies in Ohio’s “reasonable use doctrine,” which establishes guidelines for when a landowner has a legal right to affect the drainage of surface water onto another property. Our new law bulletin, “Surface Water Drainage Rights,” explains this important legal doctrine.
Here is a quick summary of the bulletin:
- A landowner does not have an absolute privilege to deal with surface water as he or she pleases but does have a legal right to alter the flow of surface waters from the property.
- However, a landowner has a legal duty of “reasonable use” when affecting surface water drainage and can be liable if a harmful interference with the flow of surface water is “unreasonable.”
- To determine whether land uses and drainage interferences are “reasonable” or “unreasonable,” Ohio courts will examine four important factors: the utility of the land use or drainage use, the gravity of harm caused to others, the practicality of avoiding the harm, and the fairness of requiring other landowners to bear harm from the drainage interference.
- A harmed party can seek damages for injuries resulting from an “unreasonable” drainage interference. Options for pursuing damages include hiring an agricultural attorney to send a “demand letter” or file a negligence claim or using the small claims court for damages that are $6,000 or less.
- Another way to resolve a drainage interference is to work with the county Soil and Water Conservation District or county engineer’s office to develop a drainage improvement project. Landowners may use the drainage petition process, which requires all landowners within the area benefitted by drainage improvement project to pay for the project through property assessments.
For a detailed explanation of drainage rights, read the full bulletin here.