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Energy & the Law

Beware of Strips and Gores

Posted in Land Titles

A “strip” is just what it sounds like: A narrow parcel of land.  A”gore” is a strip in another form, such as a triangle or other odd-shaped parcel.  When a grantor conveys land he owns adjacent to a narrow strip that thereby ceases to be of benefit or importance to him, he also conveys the narrow strip unless he reserves the strip for himself by plain and specific language.  These random tracts can be valuable when there is oil and gas production and can be lost without careful contract drafting.

Escondido Services, LLC v. VKM Holdings, LP, Escondido Services, 321 S.W.3d 102 (Tex. App—Eastland)

 

In 2001 the Crouches conveyed four tracts of land, each bounded by “highway strips”, to VKM’s predecessor.  Seven years later, Ms. Couch gave Escondido a quitclaim deed for the mineral estate underneath the highway strips.  Claiming it owned the minerals underneath the highway, Escondido sued VKM.  Relying on the “strip and gore doctrine” the court said the minerals belonged to VKM.

Since 1862, Texas law has presumed that a conveyance of land bounded on a public highway carries with it ownership to the center of the road.  This longstanding property law doctrine carries with it an important effect:  In general, a property owner cannot lease the mineral rights beneath an highway strip if he has already leased the land adjacent to the easement.

From Escondido’s point of view, the Crouches’ 2001 conveyance was limited to the four tracts of land adjacent to the highway strips and, therefore, did not include the highway strip itself. Sometime after acquiring the quitclaim deed, Escondido filed a trespass to try title action against VKM in an effort to establish that Escondido enjoyed superior title.  The court took two property law doctrines to heart as it considered Escondido’s claim. First, the “appurtenance doctrine” presumes that “a conveyance reflects an intention to carry with it the appurtenant easements and incidents belonging to the property at the time of the conveyance.”  The court said that the appurtenance doctrine would presume that the Crouches’ 2001 conveyance intended to convey the easement (i.e. the highway) as well as the parcels.

Second, and more important, the court also recognized that the grantor was required to plainly and specifically reserve the strip for himself in the deed by plain and specific language.

Following the strip and gore doctrine, the court looked to (a) whether the highway strip remained important to the grantor and (b) whether the conveyance was unambiguously limited to the parcel, excluding the highway strip.  Upon its finding that the highway strip was not important to the grantor at the time of the 2001 conveyance and that the boundaries of the conveyance were ambiguous, the court ruled that the lower court appropriately applied the strip and gore doctrine when it determined that VKM had the superior title and that Escondido should “take nothing.”

The lesson is clear: acquiring the mineral rights beneath Texas highways and easements is a risky bargain.  Although a well-drafted conveyance can reserve those rights, the presumptions under Texas law are against it.