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Surveying historical boundaries of lands in Massachusetts can be a complex task.  It may require searching and deciphering markings, monuments, and records that are many years old.  In a November 5, 2018 Massachusetts property case, the Land Court faced several obstacles as it attempted to determine an accurate boundary line between two parcels of land.  The case originated when the plaintiff, seeking to resolve the question, filed an action to try and quiet title against the owners of the adjacent parcel.  The defendants, in turn, filed multiple counter-claims against the plaintiff.  The parties ultimately agreed to narrow their dispute into a single issue to be decided at trial, namely, the boundary between the properties.

The lands had been previously owned by two brothers, who had inherited them in 1942 as a large, single tract of property.  In 1961, the brothers divided their lands into two parcels, which became the lands currently owned by the parties in the case.  The brothers decided to skip the expense of a surveyor, however, and described the boundary line between their lands themselves, using monuments and markers.  In particular, the brothers referenced an old road marked by pipes and stones, a brook that had disappeared long before 1961, a bridge that no longer existed, and a heap of stones on a ledge of a ravine.

In order to determine the entire boundary between the formerly unified lands, the Land Court needed to find the exact locations of the ill-defined monuments described in deed.  To identify the location of the old road, the court reviewed a plan prepared by a surveyor in 2013.  The court concluded that the plan accurately depicted the road, noting that its location corresponded with maps from 1980 and 1986.  Although the maps were not professionally surveyed, they were prepared pursuant to state regulations for the plaintiff to submit a state-mandated forest management plan.  The bridge and brook were located by a geotechnical engineer and found to be consistent with the defendant’s testimony about statements that the prior owner made concerning the property line.

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Acquiring legal title to real property can be complex, particularly if the land is old or abandoned.  In unusual situations, the knowledge of a Massachusetts real estate attorney may be beneficial to achieve your goals.  In an October 26, 2018 case, the plaintiffs sought to obtain title to the vacant, residential lot next to their property.  Current ownership of the vacant lot was unclear, as the owner named in the 1903 deed had died long ago.  The plaintiffs, however, succeeded in acquiring a 25% share of the property.  They then filed a petition in Land Court seeking a partition of the lot, naming 47 respondents who were or could be the heirs, devisees, or other successors in interest to the late owner.

Under Massachusetts law, any person, except a tenant by the entirety, owning an undivided legal estate in the land may seek a partition, with a presumption that such partition should result in the physical division of land.  The plaintiffs in the case did not intend to splinter the vacant lot, but rather, sought to use the partition statute as a means to obtain title to the entire lot, free and clear of its other owners.

After serving all of the co-owners with notice of the partition action, the plaintiffs filed a motion for default judgments against 39 co-owners who did not respond.  Collectively, these 39 individuals owned a 55% interest in the lot.  The court granted default judgments.  Eight co-owners, collectively holding almost 20% interest in the lot, participated in the proceedings.  The court determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to a partition and appointed a commissioner to make recommendations as to the division of the lot.

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The legal rights of Massachusetts condominium owners are provided by state laws and may be further defined in the Master Deed to their condo.  For many people, consulting a Massachusetts real estate attorney is helpful to gain a better understanding of these documents and laws.  An October 5, 2018 case between condo unit owners and a condominium developer illustrates the significance of the Master Deed in determining the rights and responsibilities of the parties.

The case arose after the developer recorded two amendments to the Master Deed, which had the effect of permitting construction of 56 additional condo units, doubling the current occupancy.  The plaintiffs contended that the amendments were invalid because the defendant no longer had authority to amend the Master Deed without approval of a majority of the unit owners.

In Massachusetts, the Condominium Act provides the framework for the development of condominiums.  The Act explicitly protects unit owners by mandating their consent to any alteration that materially affects their undivided interests in the common areas.  Accordingly, any such alteration can be achieved only by an amendment to the Master Deed.  There is an exception, however, for phased condominium projects like the one at issue in the case.  Unit owner approval is not required to add new units for a phased project if the Master Deed provided for them at the time it was recorded, and made it possible to determine each unit’s interest after the additions.

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Easements can be vital to allow access to and from a parcel of property.  In a recent Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs filed an action in Land Court seeking to establish that they held an access easement over land owned by the defendant.  When the Land Court granted a summary judgment motion in favor of the defendant, the plaintiffs appealed the decision.  The Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed the case and ultimately reversed the judgment in an October 12, 2018 order and opinion.

The plaintiffs in the case owned property on a peninsula that juts into a river.  The property is connected to the mainland by a causeway and access road that runs through a marsh.  Although the plaintiffs owned the access road from their property to the causeway, they were concerned that it would be difficult if not impossible to widen or improve the road due to the marsh.  The plaintiffs therefore sought to establish an alternative means of reaching the causeway through a right of way over the defendant’s land.

To rebut the defendant’s summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs pointed to prior deeds to two lots that were part of the defendant’s current property.  The deeds referenced a right of way over the lots for the use of landowners to the south of the lots.  Because the plaintiffs’ property was located south of the lots, they claimed that they are among those intended to benefit from the right of way in the deed.  The plaintiffs also produced plans that depicted a right of way running south across the defendant’s property, and eventually connecting to the causeway leading out of the peninsula.

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A drainage easement allows for part of an owner’s property to be used for runoff and stormwater drainage purposes.  They are typically written in the deed to the property, but a party may argue that it has acquired drainage rights by prescription, as in a September 14, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case.  The action was filed in Land Court by a developer seeking to establish its alleged drainage rights in the property of the homeowners.

The developer had purchased a former industrial site and sought approval to redevelop the land.  The homeowners lived downhill from the site on abutting property.  Stormwater was collected in a catch basin on the developer’s site and funneled into an underground pipe, which traveled beneath the homeowners’ property and eventually dumped the water into a ditch on their property.

The homeowners appeared at a public hearing on the developer’s plans, and questioned whether the developer had the right to drain stormwater onto their property.  The developer brought suit against the homeowners, initially asserting that it was entitled to drainage rights pursuant to the deed.  After further investigation, the developer conceded that it did not have deeded rights, and instead argued that it had acquired drainage rights by prescription.

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Owners of vacant parcels of land often seek to construct single-family homes on the empty lots.  In most situations, Massachusetts property owners will need to obtain a permit from the local zoning authority to build a new home.  The plaintiffs in a September 27, 2018 case sought approval to build a single-family dwelling on each of the two vacant lots they owned.  The building inspector denied the permits, finding that the two lots lacked legal frontage, and therefore, were not buildable without a variance.  When the building inspector’s decision was upheld by the local zoning board, the plaintiffs appealed to the Massachusetts Land Court.

The lots owned by the plaintiffs were bordered by roads on their east and west property lines.  Under the local bylaw, a house lot must have at least 150 feet of frontage to a qualified way between its side boundary lines.  The primary issue in the case was whether one of the roads bordering the plaintiffs’ lots qualified as a way that would allow them to satisfy the frontage requirement for a lot with a house.

Massachusetts law defines a way that qualifies for frontage as: (1) a public way or a way that is maintained and used as a public way; (2) a way shown on an approved plan in accordance with the subdivision control law; or (3) a way in existence before the subdivision control law became effective, which provides for the traffic needs of the abutting land and for the installation of municipal services to serve the land.

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Longstanding or frequent disputes between property owners may be difficult to resolve outside of court.  The parties involved in a September 25, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case had clashed over their respective property rights in a sandy beach area for more than a dozen years.  Following a bench trial and a jury trial, the Superior Court entered judgment declaring the usage and ownership rights of each party.  The case reached the Appeals Court of Massachusetts after the parties filed cross-appeals.

The plaintiff in the case was a beach association that owned a parcel of property next to the defendants’ lot.  The defendants’ home was located on a lot within the neighborhood.  Both the plaintiff’s and defendants’ lots abutted a strip of sandy beach on the shore of a large pond.  The plaintiff’s lot and the sandy beach had been used for recreation by the neighborhood’s homeowners and their guests for decades.  The years long dispute among the parties centered around the portion of the beach abutting the defendants’ lot.  The parties disagreed over their respective rights to use of the dock and boat ramp situated on that area, the defendants’ encroachment over the shared boundary line, and the plaintiff’s right to use a footpath behind the defendants’ house.

On appeal, the court looked to the records of prior conveyances of the parties’ lots, which were once owned in common.  In the original conveyance of the parties’ combined lots, the grantor had retained property on the other side of a road shown on the plan.  When viewed from the ground, the road was unpaved in front of the parties’ lots, having remained a strip of sandy beach.  The defendants argued that they had title to the sandy strip because generally, all grants of property bounded by water also pass on the land up to the water.  The appeals court, however, applied the Massachusetts derelict fee statute to conclude that, in the absence of an expressly contrary intent, the grantor conveyed title only to the center line of the road, and not the entire road.  Accordingly, each party owned the portion of sandy breach strip that extended from their respective lots to the mid-point of the strip.

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Understanding your rights in real property may be crucial when making legal decisions concerning that property, as illustrated in an August 15, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case.  The dispute centered around property that had been the plaintiff’s home since 1987.  The plaintiff had initially owned the property, but he lost it to foreclosure in 1994.  The plaintiff continued residing in the house, however, after convincing a friend to purchase the house from the foreclosing bank and rent it to him.  The plaintiff hoped to buy the house back after his credit had improved.

In 2003, the house was sold to the defendant, another friend of the plaintiff.  The defendant promised to sell the property back to the plaintiff several times.  Each time, however, the plaintiff failed to close on the property through no fault of the defendant.  The last purchase and sale agreement was executed by the parties in 2015, and the defendant agreed to four extensions of the closing through the following year.  When the plaintiff did not close, the defendant initiated eviction proceedings.  In response, the plaintiff filed an action to impose a constructive or resulting trust over the property, claiming that he had been the property’s rightful owner all along.

A constructive trust is created by the court to prevent unjust enrichment resulting from fraud, a violation of a fiduciary duty, mistake, or other circumstances in which the title owner’s retention of legal title to property would result in unjust enrichment.  A constructive trust is not a true trust.  However, once a court determines that a constructive trust exists, the court can order the unjustly enriched party to transfer the property to the beneficiary of the constructive trust.

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The actions of developers and other businesses may have lasting effects on the properties of residential homeowners.  When the change is unwanted or unwarranted, homeowners may be able to take legal steps to protect their property rights.  In a September 7, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the homeowners succeeded in opposing a property developer’s plan to use a right of way easement on their property.

The developer in the case had applied to the local zoning authority for approval of a proposed plan to build an affordable housing complex with thirty-two dwelling units.  Seeking to demonstrate that there was sufficient access to the proposed development, the developer added to its proposed plan an additional access road traveling from the public road to the development.  The additional access road proposed by the developer, however, required use of a right of way through property owned by the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs filed an action in the Massachusetts Land Court to protect their rights in the right of way, arguing that the developer had no rights to cross their land to access the proposed development from the public road.

The developer first argued that it had a granted easement over the right of way because it was shown on the recorded plan of the plaintiff’s subdivision.  The court disagreed, holding that the mere depiction of a way on an approved subdivision, without more, does not operate as a grant of an easement.

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Dividing property held in joint ownership may require a court order in cases where the owners cannot reach an agreement.  In a September 5, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the Appeals Court reviewed an order of a lower court dividing the property owned by the parties.

The parties in the case owned two noncontiguous parcels as tenants in common.  The plaintiff filed a petition for partition, alleging that physical division of the property was impossible and seeking a sale of both lots.  The lower court divided the property by awarding the more valuable parcel to the defendants, with a monetary payment to the plaintiff to make up the difference in value.  The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the lower court should not have relied on appraisals to determine the value of the property, and instead, should have ordered a public or private sale.

In a Massachusetts partition action, a sale is not simply an equally available alternative to a physical division.  Nor does the difficulty and complexity of achieving a just and equitable physical division of the property, alone, justify a sale.  Rather, the court may only order a sale after it determines by a preponderance of the evidence that the land cannot be divided advantageously.  Generally, the advantage or disadvantage of a division must be a pecuniary one.  The judge may take into account the physical condition of the land to be divided, together with any potential damage to the profitability of the land.  In cases involving multiple noncontiguous lots, as here, the court may divide the property by awarding intact lots to the various parties, rather than by physically dividing each lot by metes and bounds.

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