I am drawing a map of a fictional city (currently set in year 1900). All the technology is based on the real world. My map includes property boundaries. In certain cases, a property is behind another, requiring a private servitude / 'panhandle' to access it.

I'm unable to find too much information on the history of panhandling of properties. Most search takes me to Oklahoma or Texas, which is not what I'm looking for.

My question is this, For how long are property panhandles in use? Or what technology / development made them relevant?

A panhandle is a property with a narrow, long driveway. A normal property would have a boundary wall along the street forming (usually) a rectangle. A panhandle property would be in the rough shape of a letter "P" with only the foot of the p contacting the street.

  • $\begingroup$ Though I am no expert in this, I recall private servitudes date back to Rome and its "jus", or even earlier. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 17, 2017 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ In any kind of economy based on private property, which in practice means just about any economic structure derived from the Hellenistic / Roman / Germanic traditions, a property with no access to a road or other means of transportation has very little value; so for thousands of years people who wanted to sell some land had to make sure that the new owner had access to the road / river / canal. This can be in the form of a servitude (the right to use an access path) or in the form of a "panhandle". In Europe private servitudes are quite common, serving one or more properties "second row" lots. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 17, 2017 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ This is called "flag lots" in my region. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    May 17, 2017 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Have you tried looking on Google maps to see what kind of designs you'd be trying to emulate? Since regions have different laws regarding construction, zoning and road placement, I don't think this question can be definitively answered as you haven't provided a location for the city; however, since it is your city, you can make the laws, and make the roads however you like. I suggest finding a section on Google maps that pleases your eye and copying that instead. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    May 17, 2017 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ Try “easement”? I’ve never seen panhandle used in this manner. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 17, 2017 at 17:49

4 Answers 4


My question is this, For how long are property panhandles in use? Or what technology / development made them relevant?

Some key historical developments:

  • In the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, outside "free cities" almost all land was owned by a local lord who had serfs who were essentially like sharecroppers but not free to move elsewhere, who in turn owed allegiance and support to a middle level lord, who in turn owed allegiance and support to a higher level lord, all of the way up to the king in what was known as a feudal system. Few people had the right to travel and access across feudal estates was something that higher level lords did for the benefit of those below him and institutions like the church and traveling merchant communities (e.g. tinkers).

The lords were allowed, but also required, to pass their land and the associated responsibilities to their eldest male heir at law and could not sell the land or freely transfer it.

  • Over a period of centuries ca. 14th to 19th centuries CE, the right to choose who will inherit land in a Will is established, serfs are freed to become peasants with the right to relocate and travel, and the king maintains a set of public roads. Land ownership remains highly concentrated so access is still rarely a problem. Only towards the later end of this period is the transfer of land for money or other real estate without the permission of a higher up lord authorized. Also, only towards the later end of this period are physical barriers like fences erected. Previously, herders had quite a bit of freedom to roam, so long as they didn't enter into a hostile lord's fiefdom.

  • Starting around the 19th century CE, the enclosure movement begins and land is routinely fenced off. Herders lose the practical ability to roam without owning large tracts of land, and smaller peasant farmers who are successors to the prior serfs are often forced or bought out of their land and migrate to emerging cities. By 1900 this process has pretty much run its course and most land is enclosed. But, a legal doctrine called an "easement by necessity" preserves a right of access across the land of someone who sold land (or their successors) from the land of someone of bought (or their successors), creating a fairly organic set of easement routes across other people's land.

  • The "panhandle" accesses you see in someplace like Texas have a lot to do with the fact that huge swaths of land that were formerly owned by Native Americans or that were communal lands under Mexican land grants, came into the ownership of the government and the government, in turn, disposed of almost all land that had any economic value more or less all at once, via homesteading, large scale land grants to favored interests (e.g. schools and railroads), and sales to private persons.

As a result, instead of land parcels arising gradually and "organically" though decisions made by people on the ground who were using the land and dealing with access issues on a transaction by transaction basis, pretty much all land in the U.S. between the Appalachian Mountain and the Cascade Mountain range, was rapidly disposed of by government bureaucracies called "land offices" (hence the phrase "doing land office business") on the basis of maps to speculators, pioneers, homesteaders and the like, without much regard to topography or sensibly sized parcels of land given its economic capacity with prices and parcel sizes set in a very arbitrary basis at a very high level of central decision making.

Even these central decision-makers knew that access was necessary, but they were more or less totally unaware of where the historic pathways and access routes across these parcels of land were located, so they simply provided for arbitrary surveyor drawn roads with parcels drawn such that each one could access a road somehow, rather than through a system of easement over historic roads, pathways and trails that were tailored to topographic realities (e.g. along riverbanks and ridge lines) since the early maps that the people drawing the parcels were relying upon weren't topographic and in many cases there were no sedentary populations that had historically used the lands since they were previously used for hunting and gathering, were used for herding, or were used in a form of collective ownership in a pseudo-feudal arrangement with a New World equivalent of a feudal lord set up in Mexican territories.

This process started in the late 18th century (the Northwest Territories that became the Midwestern states started the process) and continued through most of the 19th century in the Continental United States.

Eventually this ran its course in the Continental United States because homestead policies put in place by Easterners who didn't understand the importance of water rights as a limiting factor on land use mandated parcel sizes that were far to small to support a household in places that had no access to water rights, and that were generously and indeed over generously large in places that had good access to water. Eventually, places with water were subdivided and developed, while parcels without water were snapped up by speculators from failed homesteaders and consolidated.

Also, much of the American West simply wasn't suitable for farming or residential occupation and except in cases where mining claims were established, couldn't attract anyone who wanted to own it even for free. The West is full of steep mountains, deserts, and the like where you just can't farm. So, eventually homesteading was largely discontinued and the government began to turn land into parks or hold it for management by government officials who would enter into grazing leases and the like. But, places like Texas had already run their course of transfers to the private sector before that happened.

Alaska is still open to homesteaders, but is too cold and too far from everywhere and not developed enough to be attractive enough to create a land rush, even though Alaska pays its residents a couple thousand dollars a year per capita just because they live there.

  • Once you get in the 1920s and 1930s, developers start to get more sophisticated and aren't in a land office rush, so once someone consolidates land based upon a much closer familiarity with it, rather than crudely drawing boundaries on non-topographic maps, sight unseen, they start to subdivide land into planned communities with more thoughtfully designed public road access for all lots dedicated to a homeowner's association or local government entity. Even by the late 1800s, deeded easements across topographically sensible routes had largely replaced panhandle shaped boundaries.

A private servitude is not a panhandle. The panhandle implies that the access way is owned by the second (accessed/benefited) property, a private servitude is owned by the first (burdened) property but the owner of the second (benefited) property has the right to access their property using that route.

I can only find it in Scottish and US law, dating from 1889 and resulting from a route being used "since time immemorial" and hence being maintained as a right.

The usual reason for a panhandle on a new property is that the roadside property sold off a plot of land behind their existing building and along with that needed to provide access, hence the panhandle as part of the new building plot. An inaccessible plot has little value and the private servitude rights don't apply as it's a newly independent property and has no history of access.

The "time immemorial" clause for private servitudes is similar to the one for public rights of way. Since only a single property is using this route it becomes a private servitude, if the route had been used since time immemorial for the people of village A to travel to village B, it becomes a public right of way.

There's another law related to this concept which is easement, it allows access to private land to anyone with a legitimate reason to do so. This law allows access across private land to another area of otherwise isolated private land, it also allows the postman to deliver letters to your door, utility companies to access their services etc.

The laws of the various countries that still maintain this concept have drifted over the course of the centuries so there's no point getting into the fine details of the way these laws work now. However the important thing to take away is that the concept of the servitude is Roman in origin.

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    $\begingroup$ Another term that you might encounter, at least in some parts of the US, is 'easement'. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ @JeffZeitlin, in the UK that's the law that allows the postman to deliver letters to your door, it usually has a slightly different purpose though it can be used the same way $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 17, 2017 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix - It's more or less used that way in the US, as well - for example, if a utility pole needs to be anchored on your property (even if the pole itself isn't on your property), the utility company receives an easement to be able to place the anchor. Essentially, any legally-required encroachment on your property can be covered under the term "easement", and what has been called a 'private servitude' in this question/answer is a specific type of easement. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ @JeffZeitlin, A servitude requires ownership of related land, easement requires legitimate reason to access the land itself. Different countries different laws, so there's no point getting into fine detail. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 17, 2017 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ Here's an article describing easements: propertymetrics.com/blog/2015/12/24/… $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 17, 2017 at 17:48

Here is a spitball type answer to explain how this could happen. please note it is not based on anything in our long history, just something I made up myself.

Have a period with rather harsh inheritance taxes. When "Pops" the family patriarch dies, his kids have to pay a rather exorbitant sum in order to keep the land the family farm and home is on. The only way to cover the cost is to sell some of the land.

There are a number of ways to divide a plot but what if a particularly fertile stretch is in the back part of the plot and you want to sell it. Here is your problem, the road doesn't go there. So you create your Panhandle, or private servitude, or whatever, to make the property more attractive to sell. It has a way to get to it from the road that is wide enough to accommodate whatever. It can be sold to cover the tax bill.

That gets us to a possible 'How'for the formation of these panhandles. Now how long do they last? It kind of depends on the use of the land in the future and on the state of the inheritance tax laws. In the US, a lot of those laws were in abeyance for a time, and the limits have been raised and lowered depending on nothing more than political whim. Anyway, Maybe the back 40 acres that got sold off then gets bought by a real estate developer. He gets the county to turn the panhandle into a road. In another scenario, maybe the original family earns enough to buy the plot back and re-incorporate it into the original farm. There are a multitude of methods here, almost all driven by money.

Again, this is not based on some legal principle, just something I can visualize happening


Access roads are relevant as soon as roads are. I live on a property like this, if I didn't own the access my front neighbours could block me any time they want.

My side neighbours behind the big property used to share my driveway but didn't own it, I did. After some ongoing issues with them I built a fence across their driveway to mine they had made, so I assume they currently get access from the other side.

So in terms of relevance, having legal ownership is very important. You can never rely on goodwill between neighbours or even extended family for these sorts of things. And without legal ownership a dispute could get very messy.


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