Articles Posted in Easements

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If another person interferes with your easement rights or over-burdens it with an impermissible use, you may have legal recourse to protect your property interests.  In some situations, the court may issue a preliminary injunction to keep the status quo or restrain certain conduct before a final decision has been reached, as in a May 24, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case.  The plaintiffs in the case filed a lawsuit claiming an easement to use a beach area.  The plaintiffs then requested a preliminary injunction from the court to enforce those rights.  In turn, the defendants sought a preliminary injunction against the plaintiffs to cease many of their activities the beach, alleging that such uses were destructive.

The plaintiffs claimed that they had the right to deploy and maintain a dock, use a boat ramp, and park vehicles and trailers on the beach.  In their motion for a preliminary injunction, they claimed that the defendants had interfered with those rights.  The defendants argued that any easements rights of the plaintiff were based on the permissive use allowed by the previous owner of the property, and such use had been revoked after his death.  The defendants further alleged that the plaintiffs had overburdened the easement and that their activities constituted a nuisance and trespass on the beach.  They sought to prevent the plaintiffs from installing a dock, launching boats, parking and storing trailers, boats, and vehicles, planting invasive species, leaving trash, having large parties and drinking alcohol on the beach, and lighting fireworks.

In Massachusetts, the court may issue a preliminary injunction only if the moving party demonstrates the following: (1) a likelihood of success on the merits, (2) that he or she faces a substantial risk of irreparable harm if the injunction is not issued, and (3) that this risk of irreparable harm outweighs any risk of irreparable harm which granting the injunction would create for the non-moving party.

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An easement is a property right that may, in some situations, be abandoned or extinguished by law.  In a May 2, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the Land Court considered whether the defendant held an easement over an area abutting its property.  The area in dispute was a “paper way”, as it was conveyed and described in the deed as a right of way but had never been constructed.

The defendant in the case owned a large apartment complex.  The paper street was located between the plaintiff’s properties and, in the deed, continued through to the defendant’s property.  In 1993, the prior owner of the apartment complex installed a six-foot fence, cutting off its own access to the paper street.  Since then, the plaintiffs claimed to have used the paved portion of the paper street as a driveway and parking area, and the unpaved portion as a lawn, grilling area, and wooded area.

The plaintiffs filed an action against the defendant in Land Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that it owned the paper street in fee and that the defendant had no property rights over it.  The Land Court addressed the issue of the defendant’s easement rights when the parties moved for summary judgment.  The plaintiffs argued that any rights the defendant had in the paper street were extinguished by prescription or abandoned.

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An easement allows a person the legal right to use another person’s land for a specific and limited purpose.  If someone interferes with that right, the easement holder may request that the court to issue an injunction prohibiting such interference.  In an April 5, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action against her neighbors after they fenced in a private way, thus preventing her from using it.

The private way at issue was located on the borders of the plaintiff’s land and the defendants’ land.  The first deed to the plaintiff’s property, recorded in 1901, granted the right to the owners to pass over the private way, located on the defendants’ property.  After purchasing their property in 2017, the defendants informed the plaintiff that they intended to put up a fence to obstruct the plaintiff’s use of the way.  Over the plaintiff’s objection they installed the fence.

The plaintiff filed a Complaint in the Massachusetts Land Court, asserting claims of ownership by adverse possession and interference with easement rights.  The plaintiff then moved the court for a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants to remove the fence and stop interfering with her use of the way.

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Sharing an access road or right of way with other property owners occasionally causes conflict, as in a recent Massachusetts real estate action.  The parties in the case owned adjacent lots in a residential subdivision that bordered a lake.  In a January 17, 2019 decision, the Land Court was presented with the question of whether and to what extent the parties had property rights in, or ownership of, a right of way easement leading to the lake.

The defendant in the case owned a lot in the same subdivision as the plaintiffs.  He used the right of way regularly to access the lake, and had made improvements to it, such as re-grading a sloped section and installing a portable, metal dock.  The co-plaintiffs filed the action seeking to clear title and for a declaratory judgment with respect to their ownership rights in the way.  They presented multiple, alternative theories to the court to establish their claims.

Ultimately, the plaintiffs prevailed on their claim that they owned the right of way up to the centerline, by operation of the Derelict Fee Statute.  Pursuant to the Massachusetts Derelict Fee Statute, a deed that conveys a piece of land abutting a way includes ownership of the way up to the centerline, unless otherwise expressed in the deed.  If the property on the other side of the way is conveyed as well, the full width of the way is conveyed.

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The classification of a road as a public or private way can be significant.  The decision may impact the level of control that adjacent property owners have over it, as well as the public services that are available to repair and maintain the way.  In a December 19, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action against the city, seeking a determination from the Land Court that the way allowing access to her home was private.  The distinction as a private way would exempt it from the requirements of a local zoning ordinance.

The primary question for the court was whether the way was an easement or a private way that could be considered frontage under the local zoning law.  As a preliminary matter, the Land Court held that the plaintiff had the burden of proof to show that the municipal ordinance did not apply to the way at issue.  The Land Court first looked to the original 1891 deed to determine the intent of the grantors.

The City argued that because the initial conveyance in 1891 included the area as a right of way, the intent of the grantor was to create an easement.  The plaintiff contended that the language granting the right of way in the deed was not a conventional easement, as there was no dominant or servant estate tied to the grant.  Further, the deed had granted a right of way over an area that currently served as the main road, which later became partially a private way and partially a public way open for use by the general public.

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A dispute over parking may become a legal issue if it interferes with the property rights of one or more individuals.  For many condo residents, legal claims pertaining to their building may only be asserted by the owner, which is typically a condominium trust.  In such cases, the interests of the condominium trust must be represented by a Massachusetts real estate attorney during the legal proceedings.

In a January 7, 2018 case, the Land Court determined whether the plaintiff had the right to park on abutting property owned by the defendant. The plaintiff in the case was an individual owner of a residential condo unit.  She was also a trustee of the condominium trust that owned the condo building.  She filed her action in Land Court, without the representation of an attorney, in both her individual capacity and her capacity as a trustee.

In Massachusetts, while a person may represent oneself in most legal proceedings, only a member of the bar may represent another person or entity before a court.  Therefore, as an initial matter, the Land Court ruled that the plaintiff could not bring claims on behalf of the trust pro se, and that those claims must be dismissed. The court then went on to address her individual claims against the defendant.

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Individuals seeking to improve a private road will generally need the consent of the owner, even if they have some property rights to use the road.  In a December 4, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs initiated legal action against the defendant in Land Court after he refused to allow them to pave the sole road providing access to the parties’ homes.  The defendant did not dispute that the plaintiffs held some type of an easement to use the road; however, he argued that they did not have the right to pave the road over his objection.

The parties owned seasonal homes on a secluded peninsula, which were accessible via one gravel-surfaced, private roadway.  The defendant was the fee owner of the gravel road, which was located on his property.  The roadway led to the plaintiffs’ house and continued past the defendant’s own house, serving a total of ten homes on the peninsula.  The plaintiffs wished to pave the road for easier travel and less damage to their vehicles, and because they believed it was a reasonable improvement.  The defendant believed that paving the road was unnecessary, and argued that doing so would worsen the road drainage problems, lead to non-residents’ use of the private road, allow cars to drive faster through the area, and overall change the feel of the small neighborhood.

Following a trial, the Land Court found that the plaintiffs had a prescriptive easement.  Their prescriptive easement was created by continued use of the road for the required statutory period.  Accordingly, the extent of their easement was limited to the use through which it was created, i.e., travel to and from their house.

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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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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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