John is principally a real estate lawyer, whose practice encompasses both transactions and litigation in a wide variety of settings. Transactional services include the full array of commercial real estate deals: development, purchase and sale, leasing, financing, condominiums, and easements. In transactions, John takes special care to draft contracts in plain language. His litigation experience includes breaches of contract, LLC member disputes, loan default, partition, construction defects, landlord-tenant disputes, adverse possession, and contested probate matters. In litigation, John strives to be cost-effective.
John’s clients are owners and managers of commercial real estate seeking advice about development, covenants & restrictions, leasing, condominium, and property management laws and contracts. John also advises banks and auto dealers, and frequently consults with Boardman’s municipal and estate planning groups on real estate matters. John previously practiced law in Chicago from 1991 to 2006.
Admitted to Practice
- Wisconsin State Courts
- Illinois State Courts
Community Involvement & Board Memberships
- Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, Inc., Pro Bono Legal Representation
- Urban League of Greater Madison, Inc., Pro Bono Legal Representation
- Legal Action of Wisconsin, Volunteer Lawyers Project, Pro Bono Legal Representation
- State Bar of Wisconsin
Illinois State Bar Association
- J.D., cum laude, University of Wisconsin Law School, 1991
- Managing Editor, Wisconsin Law Review
- B.B.A. in Finance, University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1987
John’s Latest Writing & Presentations
Municipal Law Newsletter | 12.07.23
Clients need to use or let others use real property in ways that occasionally defy easy characterization. Most everyone understands that if you want to occupy a suite in an office building for five years, you sign a “lease.” That you give an “easement” to a neighbor who needs to cut across your property to get to theirs. That you occupy a hotel room, parking ramp, or your seat at a college football game under a “license.” But what if a company needs its employees to park in its next-door neighbor’s parking lot? Or if a church wants to permit another group to regularly hold meetings in its space? What if a municipality wants to let cell phone providers put antennas on its water towers? And what about billboards? Indeed, any time real property is being used or occupied by someone other than the owner, it is useful to consider whether to use a lease, a license, or an easement.
We consider three basic questions to choose the appropriate alternative. First, is the interest possessory or nonpossessory? Second, is the interest permanent or temporary? Third, should the owner’s remedy be a simple termination or the onerous process of eviction after a default? (Other relevant questions include whether a particular use or occupancy of real property is exclusive or non-exclusive, and transferable or personal.)
Possessory interests generally permit permanent occupancy to the exclusion of others, whereas nonpossessory interests permit only temporary use. Leases are possessory estates, giving the tenant exclusive occupancy of the leased premises against the rest of the world, including even the owner. Easements, in contrast, are generally intended to be nonpossessory interests, granting the use of property for a specific purpose but not occupancy. A driveway easement, for example, merely gives your neighbors the temporary right to use your driveway to get to their garage; but not to build an addition, have a garage sale, or camp out on your driveway. Note, however, that the lines blur. Most leases do not confer strict, exclusive, possession, since landlords usually reserve the right to enter the leased property to inspect, repair, and show it to prospective tenants. And a billboard easement confers a possessory interest since the sign physically occupies the land.
Easements are generally intended to be permanent interests in real property, whereas leases must end and are therefore temporary. For example, it would be impossible to run an electric utility if leases with each homeowner served had to be regularly renegotiated. (It’s important to note that under Wis. Stat. § 893.33, even easements are not technically permanent. But the distinction remains useful.) These lines can be blurred as well, with leases that “automatically” renew and become potentially permanent, and “temporary” easements for construction or grading.
Licenses must be temporary but can be either possessory or nonpossessory. A license is not technically an interest in real property, but rather a mere contract right that confers permission to use or occupy real property. Without a license, you’d be trespassing. Licenses are typically revocable. The biggest distinction between leases and licenses is the remedy upon default. Defaulting tenants under leases are entitled to an eviction remedy, which technically allows them to continue in exclusive occupancy despite having defaulted in payment of rent or other lease terms. Eviction is a lengthy and potentially expensive process. Defaulting licensees, on the other hand, can be dispossessed without having to go through eviction: imagine having to evict someone from a hotel, football game, or parking garage.
Parking is a good example of how we work through the three questions. A grocery store client had a next-door neighbor that wanted to build a restaurant but didn’t have enough parking spaces on its own lot to satisfy the requirements of the applicable zoning ordinance. Without additional parking, the local municipality wouldn’t approve the construction of the restaurant. The restaurant asked the
grocer for a permanent easement. But the grocer wanted the restaurant to pay monthly charges rather than a one-time fee, which raised the possibility of default. Default would terminate the easement, making the interest impermanent. The municipality would have accepted a long-term lease, yet it seemed inapt to have to go through the process of evicting the restaurant for failure to pay for parking. The grocer would have preferred to give a license, but the municipality would not accept that because a license is not an interest in property sufficient to give it comfort about granting the variance. (The parties ultimately settled on an easement subject to termination for non-payment of rent.) Cell phone antennas and billboards can all be done as licenses, leases, and easements, as well as combinations of those, depending on the interests of the parties.
We tend to use easements for interests that are more “permanent” and “nonpossessory;" leases for interests that are more “temporary,” “possessory,” and “eviction-appropriate;" and licenses when eviction is inapt. But these are not bright-line tests. The characterization of an interest as a lease, license, or easement is not entirely up to the contracting parties to decide. For example, one cannot side-step the onerous requirements of residential leasing laws by having tenants sign license agreements. However, working through the three questions will generally guide you in choosing the correct interest for your situation.