Articles Posted in Easements

Agreements concerning your property can be enforced by the court if they are not performed by the other party.  In a December 15, 2017 case, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts decided a dispute between the plaintiffs and a company that owned the  neighboring property.  The Massachusetts real estate case involved an agreement providing that the plaintiffs would grant an easement to the company in exchange for a section of the company’s land.  The plaintiffs subsequently brought suit to enforce the agreement.

The agreement at issue stated that the plaintiffs would convey an easement to the defendants and allow the defendants to construct and maintain a retaining wall along the rear of the plaintiffs’ property.  The plaintiffs also agreed to arrange for another neighbor to execute a similar easement.  In exchange, the agreement provided that the plaintiffs would purchase a portion of the defendants’ lot that would square off the plaintiffs’ L-shaped lot.  The land transfer, however, was conditioned on whether it would adversely affect drainage resulting from the defendants’ proposed expansion.

The defendants argued that the agreement failed to provide many essential aspects of the parties’ agreement, and therefore, enforcement was barred by the Statute of Frauds.  The court agreed that the agreement was poorly constructed, since it lacked a purchase price for the land, it did not precisely define the location of the parcel, it incorrectly identified the owner of the parcel, and it did not contain a closing date.  Furthermore, the description of the parcel that was included did not seem to be what the parties intended.  However, the court held that since the plaintiffs performed their obligations under the agreement, and they relied on the defendants’ promise to convey the parcel, the matter was outside the Statute of Frauds.

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Some parcels of land are subject to an easement, which allows people other than the owner to use the owner’s property for a particular purpose. If you believe you have an easement over land in Massachusetts, you can petition the land court for a declaratory judgment outlining your rights. In an August 9, 2017 Massachusetts property case, the plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment in land court, arguing that they were the beneficiaries of two right of way easements across the neighboring landowner’s property.

In the case, the plaintiffs claimed they had the benefit of existing rights of way of record. The plaintiffs argued that the original deed to the defendant’s land conveying two parcels of land contained two easements, which they alleged actually existed as one continuous right of way. Since the plaintiffs owned the lands at both ends of the alleged continuous right of way, they contended that they were entitled to use and improve the right of way to access their land.

The land court first looked at the original deeds conveying the parties’ respective lots to determine whether an easement had been reserved. In Massachusetts, when an easement has been reserved in the grant of a parcel of land, the easement must be construed with reference to the deed and the circumstances when it was made. A reservation in a deed can only vest the grantor with a new right or interest. If the deed did attempt to vest a new right in a stranger to the deed, it would be void.

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Property law can seem complicated, but an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney can guide you through the necessary legal proceedings.  In a December 8, 2017 case, a boundary line dispute came before the Massachusetts Land Court for a second time.  The location of the boundary line was first addressed in 2010 with an 11-day trial.  The land court entered an amended judgment in 2011, describing the area at issue and defining the boundary.  That decision was subsequently affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

The 2017 action arose after the parties realized that the 2011 judgment did not fully resolve the boundary dispute.  The 2011 judgment was based upon the parties’ agreement that all of the defendants’ property consisted of the land conveyed in an 1838 deed.  Unbeknownst to the plaintiff and the land court, nine months before the 2010 trial, the defendants acquired a trapezoidal parcel of land south of the property that, depending on the validity of the deed and location, might also abut the plaintiff’s property.  As a result, the adjudication of the parties’ common boundary line was potentially incomplete.

After learning of the deed, which was recorded long after the 2011 judgment, the plaintiff filed the current action to reopen the proceedings.  The limited issues were whether the grantor owned the trapezoidal parcel that was conveyed to the defendants, and if so, what was the location of the south boundary line between the parties’ properties.

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Confusion over boundary lines and property ownership can eventually lead to a legal action filed before a court.  Many Massachusetts adverse possession claims are argued before the Massachusetts Land Court, which shares jurisdiction with other courts over most real property cases in the state.  In a August 29, 2017 decision, the Land Court considered the plaintiffs’ claim that they had acquired portions of the defendant’s neighboring property, which consisted of a narrow strip of land bordering their lot and a concrete pad adjacent to that strip.

In Massachusetts, title by adverse possession can be acquired if the claimant establishes, with clear proof, non-permissive use, which is actual, open and notorious, exclusive, and adverse for a period of 20 years.

The strip of land at issue in the case contained a pathway, retaining walls and low stone structures, a fence, and vegetation planted by the plaintiffs.  The Land Court found that the plaintiffs’ improvements and maintenance of the pathway and planting bed area were sufficient to constitute actual use for the purposes of adverse possession.  Specifically, the plaintiffs’ construction of a rock wall, retaining walls, and fence were permanent improvements to the property ordinarily associated with ownership.  The court also held that the fence and stone walls surrounding the strip were sufficient to show that the plaintiffs’ use of the area was open and notorious, thereby putting the record owner on notice of their claim to the area, as well as exclusive.  The court explained that the fence enclosed the cleared pathway and planting bed area as if it was an extension of the plaintiffs’ property.  Finally, evidence that the plaintiffs had used the strip of land since they had moved into their house in 1982 satisfied the 20-year required period of possession.  Accordingly, the court ruled that the plaintiffs had established their ownership of that narrow area by adverse possession.

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Boundary disputes and property ownership are often resolved in court proceedings, particularly when the party claiming possession of the land is not the title owner.  In an August 22, 2017 case, the Court of Appeals reviewed a Massachusetts title action between a landowner and the town.  The landowners brought the action against the town, seeking a declaration that they were the rightful title owners of a patch of land and way between two public roads.  The town filed a counterclaim, contending that it had a prescriptive easement.  After the Land Court ruled for the town, the landowners appealed to the higher court.

The area at issue consisted of a triangular parcel of land and an abutting way.  The way was paved but unnamed, and it was wide enough for two-way traffic to flow.  It provided a cut-through between two larger roads that merged at an intersection located at the tip of the triangular parcel of land.  The way was maintained by the town and had been used by the public for more than 20 years.  Although the public did not use the triangular parcel of land, the town had installed a drainage system in the triangle to channel water from the public roads, mowed the area, and removed dead trees.  The plaintiffs had not paid taxes on that area, nor had they been assessed by the town.

For a municipality in Massachusetts to acquire a prescriptive easement over land for a specific public purpose, it must demonstrate open, continuous, and notorious use for more than 20 years, as well as sufficient proof that it exercised dominion and control over the land through authorized acts of its employees to conduct or maintain a public use for the general benefit of its residents.

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Sharing an alleyway with other property owners can be frustrating, especially when their right to use the alley is in question.  In a September 19, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, the appeals court considered the nature and extent of the defendants’ right to use a 10-foot-wide passageway running between their property and the property of the plaintiffs.  The defendants in the case operated a small grocery and wine store in Boston, while the plaintiffs owned the property across the passageway.  The plaintiffs brought an action seeking injunctive relief from the defendants’ use of the passageway.

Prior to 1947, the previous owners of the property owned to the center of the passageway abutting their respective properties, and they enjoyed a right of passage, in common with others, over the rest of the passageway.  In 1947, the previous owners of the properties had entered into an agreement that restricted current and future owners of the defendants’ property to travel on foot and with hand carts through the passageway and expressly excluded the right to place garbage in the passageway or use the passageway for any purposes other than those provided.  Owners of the plaintiffs’ property were allowed to use the passageway in any manner for which a street is commonly used.

The primary issue for the court was whether the provisions of the 1947 agreement constituted a restriction or an easement.  The legal construct of a restriction and an easement is similar, but the distinction is outcome-determinative.  A restriction on the use of land is a right to compel the person entitled to possession of the land not to use it in specified ways.  An easement, on the other hand, creates a non-possessory right to enter and use land in the possession of another party and obligates the possessor not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement.  While restrictions become unenforceable with the passage of time, easements do not.

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If you believe that your property rights are being violated, you may be able to bring an action to stop or enjoin the actions of another individual or entity in court.  In an August 24, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action claiming an easement over registered property owned by the town of Plymouth, and he sought to enjoin the town from interfering with his easement.  Although the plaintiff had a public right of access over the town’s property, he sought to enforce greater easement rights, which he argued the town violated by relocating the easement without his consent.

The Land Court ruled that the plaintiff had an implied easement to cross the town’s land to the sea, but it was limited in scope.  Specifically, the court held that the easement entitled the plaintiff to enter and cross the town’s land only on the path designated by the town.  The plaintiff appealed the judgment to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

The plaintiff purchased his property in 2010.  His lot was originally part of a larger parcel divided into three lots in 1911.  None of the deeds to the three lots contained or reserved an express easement for the benefit of the plaintiff’s lot.  A paved way over one of the lots led to a public park on another lot and to the harbor.  The plaintiff purchased his lot for access to the harbor.  Due to a physical disability, the plaintiff’s only means to access the harbor is by using an amphibious vehicle from his lot to the boat landing on the other lot.  The plaintiff contended that the reconstruction of the public park and the construction of a boat ramp at the northern end of the park essentially relocated his easement, making it less convenient and more difficult to use.

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Property can be restricted in any number of ways through various legal means, such as a covenant or easement, often surviving a transfer of ownership.  In an August 11, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, a plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment from the Land Court stating that she had an affirmative view easement over the property of the defendant.  The defendant sought a contrary declaration, arguing that the recorded documents did not support the plaintiff’s position.

The parties in the case lived in the same subdivision on neighboring lots.  The plaintiff claimed she had an easement pursuant to the subdivision’s Protective Covenant Agreement, which allowed her to compel other lot owners to trim their trees in order to protect her view of the sound.  She filed an action seeking to compel the defendant to top trees on the defendant’s property, asserting that the trees were blocking her view of the sound.

The Protective Covenant Agreement at issue provided that trees may be topped to preserve the view at the expense of the requesting lot owner and with the consent of the developer.  The Agreement also stated that subsequent plantings shall not be permitted to grow in such a manner as materially to obstruct the view of others.  Despite the fact that the Protective Covenant itself expired in 2002, the plaintiff argued that it created an easement that survived the expiration and remained valid.

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In some cases, legal action is required to protect a landowner’s rights to a part of their property used by others.  In a July 11, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, the issue for the land court was whether the defendants and their guests had an appurtenant prescriptive easement for the unrestricted pedestrian use of a beach path located on the plaintiff’s property.

For decades, with the permission of the plaintiff and its predecessors in title, local residents have occasionally used the path to access the beach.  There is no public access to the path, and the local residents are alert to outsiders’ cars and chase them away.  Because of the parcel’s remote location, the hilly terrain, and the overgrowth surrounding it, it is impossible to notice anyone using the path unless the observer is on the path as well.

Opened seasonally since 1993, the defendants have operated a seven-guestroom inn and restaurant near the plaintiff’s parcel of land.  Despite having two other legitimate means of beach access, and without giving notice or seeking permission from the plaintiff, the defendants encouraged their guests to use the path on the plaintiff’s parcel to get to the beach.  On average, the guests used the path twice a day, and they were on the plaintiff’s parcel for only a minute or two as they walked to the beach.  None of the guests lingered on the property itself or left any sign of having been there.  Even if the guests were seen, moreover, they could not be distinguished from the local residents to whom the plaintiff had given permission to use the path.

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The Massachusetts Land Court recently considered a July 11, 2017 real estate case, which involved a 19th-century railroad easement in the plaintiffs’ property.  The easement at issue ran along the border of the plaintiffs’ property, and it was last used by the railroad in 1972.  The railroad’s interests in the easement had since passed to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). When the DCR announced that it wanted to build a walking and biking path on the railroad easement, the plaintiffs filed a quiet title action in land court. The plaintiffs in the case sought a court order stating that their property was unencumbered by any easement or other right of use or entry derived from a former railroad easement.

Historically, the 19th-century statutes giving railroads the power to take private lands for railroad lines didn’t give them a full ownership interest in what they took. Instead, a railroad received only a permanent and exclusive easement in the taken land for as long as the easement served the railroad’s chartered purposes. Consequently, once the railroad no longer has a use for the property, the land reverts back to the current owners, free of the easement. The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the entire interest in the easement reverted back to them.

DCR initially tried to invoke sovereign immunity, a doctrine that prevents a private party from suing the state and its agencies (i.e., DCR) in most circumstances. However, in Massachusetts, the courts have ruled that the try title statute impliedly waives immunity with respect to actions for quiet title. DCR then argued that the plaintiffs had to prove the federal government authorized abandonment of the easement.

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