By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program
It’s a common problem in Ohio: a dispute between two neighbors over connecting 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 used and maintained the line on Helfrich’s property prior to Helfrich’s ownership.
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 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.