Articles Posted in Easements

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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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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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In Massachusetts, a right of way easement may be legally recognized or established in different ways.  In an August 10, 2018 case, adjacent property owners brought their dispute regarding a right of way easement before the Massachusetts Land Court.  The defendants in the case claimed the right to use a right of way located on the plaintiff’s property.  The plaintiff argued that the defendants had no right to the easement because the right of way was not specifically mentioned in the plaintiff’s certificate of title.

In Massachusetts, a person with a certificate of title to property receives the property free from all encumbrances except those noted on the certificate.  Registered land, therefore, generally cannot be burdened with an easement unless it is shown on the certificate of title.

A property owner may, however, take property subject to an unregistered easement under two narrow exceptions.  First, registered property may be encumbered by an easement if there are facts described on a certificate of title which would prompt a reasonable purchaser to investigate the issue further, such as by examining other certificates, documents, or plans in the registry system.  Second, registered property may be subject to an easement where the purchaser has actual knowledge of a prior unregistered interest, such as an easement.

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A disagreement between property owners regarding their respective boundary lines may lead to legal action.  In a July 30, 2018 opinion, the Massachusetts Land Court decided a case concerning the ownership of a disputed area along the boundary line between the parties’ properties.  The area at issue was the driveway separating the two properties.  The plaintiffs in the case brought an action against the defendant to quiet title, claiming ownership over the entire portion of the disputed area pursuant to their deed.The driveway at issue was used by both parties to enter and exit their respective properties.  When the defendant purchased her property in 1998, there was a wood board affixed to the driveway that ran the length of the two houses, indicating a boundary line.  When the plaintiffs purchased their house in 2002, they understood that they were entitled to use the entire driveway between the properties, and they did so.  At some point, however, the defendant told the plaintiffs that the boundary line was down the middle of the driveway and that the plaintiffs could not use or drive on her side of it.

In 2013, the defendant had a survey done of her property to determine the location of the boundary line on the driveway.  The plaintiffs, in turn, obtained a survey in 2015 and sought a second survey thereafter.  The defendant sought a permit and constructed a four-foot fence on the driveway.  The plaintiffs obtained a third survey in 2016, which showed that a portion of the driveway and the defendant’s fence were located on the plaintiffs’ property.

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