Private and commercial property owners have a lot of questions when it comes to utility easements. How are they defined? Where are easement specifications outlined? Can someone build on a designated easement? Who is responsible for the related expenses or damages? We have put together some basic information to help property owners understand disputes and tackle issues with utility easements.

What Are Utility Easements?

An easement is the right to use part of a property without owning it. A deed should describe all of a property’s public and private usage rights, which is typically provided to property owners upon the purchase of a property.

Utility easements are one of the most common types of easements for private property, which generally allow public utility companies access to the property for the purpose of installing, repairing and maintaining utility lines. These include: overhead electric, telephone and television lines and underground electric, water, sewer, telephone, and cable lines. They exist because it’s significantly more efficient for utility companies to run lines in straight through neighborhoods rather than around individual parcels of land. Public and private services are both available for locating underground utility lines, depending on the nature of the easement.

Where Are Easement Specifications Outlined?

For many property owners, the first issue is understanding what entity is responsible for defining utility easements and where they are written down.

Easements are specified in a property deed, which is typically recorded at the county courthouse. However, deeds may be kept in other locations, such as a county tax assessor’s office or county clerk’s office. Older records may also be archived for long-term storage in some counties. The county courthouse is the best place to begin looking for property records, since the clerk should be able to direct you to their current location. Your local utility company may also maintain records on utility easements.

You’ll need to provide pertinent information about the property to obtain a copy of the deed, including the property’s address, parcel number, and owner’s name. Counties usually charge a fee per page of the deed, which may vary depending on whether you need a certified copy.

Who Is Granted Access with a Utility Easement?

Easements are typically designated for a particular use and only grant certain parties the right to access it. They can allow public or private entities to access the property, and may permit or prohibit specific activities. A right-of-way is a similar concept that generally permits non-owners to pass through the property without defining the specific parties allowed to do so.

A deed should describe the easements on the property in detail. Utility easements generally allow only employees of the utility company or municipality to access the property. Even then, they may only do so for the purpose of servicing the utility lines.

For example, when a property is separated from its street by another property, an easement may be designated to allow the back-property owner to access the street. In this case, the easement is often limited to the back-property owner’s driveway to prevent that person from using other parts of the front property. An easement may also be used to prevent a property owner from performing some action such as landscaping or building a fence, which could interfere with the ability of neighboring property owners to use their own property.

What Should I Do About the Utility Easement on My Property?

Most properties have both portions of utility lines which are governed by public services and which are portions which are the property owner’s responsibility.

Public Utility Lines

The phone number 811 is used in the United States to access public utility location services, also known as “Call Before You Dig” services. In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made 811 the universal number for the regional services that coordinate these location services. Each of these regional services had their own 800 number before that date, making it more difficult for property owners to locate utilities on their property.

Public utility location services serve as a safety measure to prevent damage to underground lines that carry utilities such as power, water or natural gas. State laws generally require you to call 811 before you begin digging in a utility easement, right of way, or public property, giving the utility company time to mark the location of underground lines before you start excavating. These markings are color-coded to indicate the specific utility. Marking services should be done at no charge. Lines usually need to be marked again if digging hasn’t begun before a certain period of time, usually around 10 days.

Utility companies mark the location of utility lines up to the user’s service connection or meter but not past it. Lines beyond this point are considered to be part of the customer’s property, so they usually aren’t marked by public locating services.

Private Locating Services

Private utility locators are needed in cases where the mark-outs from public locators fail to fully identify the location of all utilities on an easement. This situation can occur on private property and large commercial sites, especially if they’re still under construction. Contractors such as excavators and drillers typically request location services prior to beginning a project, although the facility manager may also do so at some sites.

Underground utilities usually don’t run in straight lines for long distances, since their course is dictated by many factors, such as geophysical properties and service requirements. Some of these adjustments can be quite drastic, requiring complete changes in direction. That’s why field technicians need extensive experience to detect the numerous variations in a utility line’s course.

Project Security with SoftDig

Our company is a full-service Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) firm. Our SoftDig system has been locating underground utility lines in North America, Europe and Australia since 1959. We use a range of specific technologies, including electronic locating equipment, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and vacuum excavation. Contact us today to learn more about our utility locating services.

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