Articles Posted in Easements

Massachusetts easement rights are often a source of contention between neighboring property owners.  If a property owner files an action for a declaratory judgment, the court may issue a decision setting forth the easement rights of the respective property owners, as in a July 26, 2019 case.

The plaintiff in the case brought an action against her neighbor, seeking a declaration that her neighbor had no legal right to the continued use of a sewerage pumping station on her property, and seeking injunctive relief and damages.  After the lower court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant filed an appeal with the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

At the time the plaintiff had purchased her lot, she was aware that the prior owner of the defendant’s lot was using the pump station on her lot to dispute of sewage.  The local town, however, had been paying the costs associated with the pump station since its completion in 2001.  In 2011, the town sought to recoup these costs from the plaintiff.  Thereafter, a disagreement arose between the parties regarding the defendant’s contribution towards the expenses of the pump station.  This prompted the plaintiff to file an action seeking a declaration that the defendant had no right to use the pump station.

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Local zoning regulations generally promote the safety and general welfare of the community, while also encouraging the most appropriate use of the land.  In a July 11, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs sought to overturn a decision by the local planning board that waived the requirements of a zoning regulation.

The defendants in the case had applied for approval of a two-lot, two-residence subdivision.  They also proposed to extend the right-of-way running over the plaintiffs’ lot.  Under the applicable zoning regulation, all owners of all land included in the subdivision proposal are required to join in the application.  Due to the plaintiffs’ ownership of the right-of-way, which was included in the defendants’ subdivision plan, the regulation required the plaintiffs’ signature.  However, the local planning board waived this requirement and approved the defendants’ application.  The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the board’s decision to the Land Court.

On appeal, the Land Court concluded, as an initial matter, that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the appeal.  Although the plaintiffs were afforded the presumption of being aggrieved, as their property abutted the defendants’ land, they did not establish any specific and substantiated injury that would result from the board’s decision.  Nevertheless, the court went on to consider the issue of whether the applicant waiver was improper.

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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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