Articles Posted in Easements

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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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The right to cross another person’s land via an easement may be subject to limitations.  In a July 6, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, one of the issues for the Land Court was whether an easement located on the plaintiffs’ land had been overburdened by the defendants’ use over time.  The easement at issue allowed the defendants to access a public road from their property through a roadway on the plaintiffs’ property.  The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants had overloaded the easement because they used it to access property other than the parcel expressly identified.  The plaintiffs also sought damages for flooding, which they alleged was caused by the defendants having raised and widened the easement roadway.

An affirmative easement creates a nonpossessory right to enter and use land in the possession of another and obligates the possessor not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement.  Accordingly, the party holding rights to use of the easement, i.e., the defendants, are entitled to make only the uses reasonably necessary for the specified purpose, while the plaintiffs may use their land in any way that does not unreasonably interfere with the easement.

The defendants argued that they had established a prescriptive right to use the easement to access other parcels of land in addition to the parcel expressly identified in the easement.  In order to establish their claim to a prescriptive easement, the defendants must show that their use of the easement was (a) open, (b) notorious, (c) adverse to the owner, and (d) continuous or uninterrupted over a period of no less than twenty years.

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In certain instances, using a private road on another person’s property over many years may give rise to a property interest.  In a June 26, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs had been using the defendants’ private road to access a main throughway from their property.  They filed an action in land court arguing that they had acquired an easement over the road.

In the case, the plaintiffs’ house could be reached by taking one of two different routes from the main road.  Using the road in dispute, which was located on the defendants’ property, was the easiest and quickest route.  When the plaintiffs purchased their home in 1993, they had assumed that use of the disputed way was conveyed by the deed to the house, which provided “a right of way to the Public Highway.”  Accordingly, the plaintiffs had used the disputed way from the time they moved in, believing they had a right to do so.  In the midst of the instant disagreement with the defendants, the plaintiffs learned from their attorney that they had misinterpreted their deed, and that the right of way merely referred to the street on which their house was located.  Nevertheless, the plaintiffs filed an action against the defendants, claiming that they had acquired a private easement by prescription over the disputed way.

In Massachusetts, a claimant may be entitled to a prescriptive easement over the land of another if it is shown by clear proof that the use of the land has been (a) open, (b) notorious, (c) adverse to the owner, and (d) continuous or uninterrupted over a period of at least twenty years.

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People who claim the right to an easement on another person’s property may need to take legal action if the existence of the easement is disputed.  At issue in a June 7, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case were the plaintiffs’ rights, if any, to access their woodlands by going through the defendants’ privately owned lands.

The plaintiffs in the case sought to use a route on the present-day remains of two former dirt roadways.  The dirt roadways were once public roads taken in easement by town meeting votes in 1780 and 1805.  These roads fell into disuse by the mid-1800s and were eventually discontinued by a town meeting vote in 1886.  Thereafter, the sections at issue in the case were gated off, and the underlying land was re-integrated into the properties currently owned by the defendants.  The plaintiffs did not need the easement access, since they could access all areas of their properties from public roads and internal roads on their properties.  However, the plaintiffs wanted to use the easement at issue because the route would provide more direct and easier access for them to conduct logging operations on their property.

In support of their action, the plaintiffs argued that the town votes did not discontinue the roadways’ public status, only the public obligation to maintain them, or in the alternative, that the public subsequently acquired access rights by prescription.  The plaintiffs also claimed an easement over the former roadways by necessity, prescription, or express or implied in their deeds.

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An easement is the legal right to a particular, limited use of property by someone other than the owner of the property.  In some cases, the existence of an easement may become unclear after the property has passed down through different owners over many years.  In a February 23, 2018 opinion, the appeals court considered a Massachusetts real estate action involving the plaintiffs’ claim to a right of way easement over the defendants’ land to access a main road.

The plaintiffs in the case owned a four-acre oceanfront parcel of land.  The first mention of the easement at issue was in a 1927 deed, through which the original grantor conveyed a portion of his land.  That portion was eventually owned by the plaintiffs.  The 1927 deed included an easement consisting of a right of way from the north side of the parcel to “Beach Road.”  The easement appeared with the same language in each subsequent deed conveying the parcel of land, but it was not precisely identified.  Through other deeds in 1927, the original grantor also conveyed the property currently owned by the defendants, which contained a way to access Beach Road.

In 1999, the plaintiffs divided their parcel into two lots and sold one of them to a third party.  However, the plaintiffs did not expressly reserve a right of way over the lot they sold.  Subsequently, a dispute arose over the location of the 1927 easement.  The plaintiffs alleged that the easement began at a point on the road that adjoins their property and crosses over the defendant’s land to meet Beach Road.  The defendants argued that the right of way began from the lot no longer owned by the plaintiffs.

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A deed restriction may significantly affect one’s enjoyment of their own property by prohibiting certain uses, activities, or construction.  The plaintiff in an April 26, 2018 Massachusetts land use case challenged a deed restriction imposed on her property in the Massachusetts Land Court.  She sought a declaration that some of the deed restrictions were invalid, alleging that they violated public policy by imposing an unreasonable restraint.  The defendant in the case was the City of Boston.

In 1991, the City sold the lot to the prior owner as part of a program in which it conveyed small parcels of land to abutting Boston residents, subject to deed restrictions.  The open-space restriction required that the property be used and maintained for open space purposes, such as gardening, landscaping, and off-street residential parking.  The no-build restriction prohibited the construction or installation of structures on the lot, with only one exception for an addition to the existing dwelling on the abutting lot.  The purpose of the program and deed restrictions was to retain the public benefits of open space as well as preserving reasonable density in Boston neighborhoods.

In connection with the deed, the prior owner executed a mortgage on the property, which required the written consent of the City in order to assign it to a successive owner and secured the owner’s compliance with the restrictions.  In 2010, the City gave its consent to the conveyance of the property to the plaintiff.  The deed set forth the same restrictions but expressly provided that they were for the benefit of the City of Boston.  The plaintiff also granted a mortgage at that time, in which she agreed to the restrictions.

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For many homeowners, an unexpected legal claim against their property is unsettling.  A Massachusetts real estate attorney can explain the options available and represent homeowners in the proceedings.  In an April 6, 2018 case, homeowners sought to prevent the town from using a path on their property to reach a local pond.  The homeowners argued that any easement held by the town to use the path had been abandoned.

The homeowners in the case owned property in a subdivision that was laid out on a plan recorded in 1914.  That plan, however, had virtually no relationship with how the area actually developed.  Many of the lots were combined into larger parcels before houses were built on them, while others were made a part of extensive conservation areas.  As a result, many of the roadways on the plan were never built or used, such as the path across the plaintiffs’ property.

The path at issue had never been used as a right of way to the pond by anyone, since the path was located on the plaintiffs’ front lawn, used as part of their driveway, and partially blocked by a stone wall.  Nevertheless, the town, which had always used other routes to reach the pond, contended it had the right to use the path for access to the pond.  The town’s claimed right of access was based solely on the 1914 subdivision plan.

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In Massachusetts, land use and ownership can be complicated after a parcel of property has passed through several owners over the course of many years.  In a March 3, 2018 case, the plaintiffs filed an action claiming that they had established a prescriptive easement to pass over part of the defendant’s land.  The matter was decided by the Massachusetts Land Court on summary judgment motions.

The plaintiffs in the case owned a parcel of land that abutted property owned by the defendants.  The defendants’ property consisted of two parcels.  Originally, the two parcels were a single piece of land owned by another individual.  The original owner divided the land into two parcels in 1995, conveying one parcel to the defendants and keeping the other parcel for himself.  The plaintiffs and the original owner engaged in litigation over the parcel he retained until 2012, when the house on the property was torn down.  Eventually, the property was foreclosed upon, and the defendants purchased that parcel from the original owner as well.  The plaintiffs then asserted a claim that they had established a prescriptive easement to pass over a portion of the defendants’ land.  Specifically, the disputed area consisted of a section of the circular driveway on the defendants’ property, located on the parcel that had initially been retained by the original owner.

In Massachusetts, to establish a prescriptive easement, the plaintiffs must prove open, notorious, adverse, and continuous or uninterrupted use of the defendant’s land for a period of at least 20 years.  The defendants in the case argued that the plaintiffs could not establish their prescriptive easement claim because their use of the defendants’ property was permissive, and otherwise it was merely intermittent or sporadic.

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