Articles Posted in Easements

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently decided an easement dispute involving a nature preserve and a neighboring landowner in Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Comm’n (Mass. Oct. 11, 2016). At issue was whether the owner of the nature preserve could use an easement on the plaintiffs’ property to access a parcel of land that the easement was not originally intended to serve. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the Supreme Judicial Court ultimately affirmed that decision, declining to modify the bright-line rule disallowing any use of an easement to benefit land to which the easement is not appurtenant.

In Taylor, the defendant owned and managed a nature preserve, which was comprised of various parcels of land purchased by the defendant in 1990. In 2010, the defendant created a hiking trail through its nature preserve, which it planned to open to the public. The trail began on a main road, crossed over the plaintiffs’ property by way of a 40-foot-wide easement, and proceeded across three parcels of the defendant’s land benefited by the easement. The trail then entered a fourth parcel owned by the defendant, which was not intended to benefit from the easement. The plaintiffs filed an action to prevent the defendant from using the easement as part of the hiking trail, arguing that it was improper for the trail to cross over the easement and continue onto the fourth parcel because the easement was not intended to serve that parcel.

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Ownership disputes can arise years after property was purchased or originally deeded. Speaking to this issue, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts released an opinion in the case of Knapp v. Powicki (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 29, 2016).  Knapp concerned the ownership and easement rights over a proposed street located between two abutting lots conveyed decades ago.

The property was originally a large lot of farmland owned by the grantor. In 1926, the grantor constructed a house on one section, known as 95 Coolidge, the frontage of which contained the proposed street at issue. In 1933, the grantor created a second lot, 99 Coolidge, which the defendants currently own. In 1963, another lot, known as 111 Coolidge, was created and eventually conveyed to the plaintiffs. The proposed way runs between these two lots.

Over the years, the descriptions of the land and the proposed way changed in the deeds, which were not as careful as the original. At the time the deeds were executed, the language used would have been enough to demonstrate the grantor’s intent to retain ownership of the street and rebut any presumption that it passed to the buyer of the lot. However, in 1971, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the derelict fee statute, which strengthened the common law presumption that a deed bounding on a way conveys title to the center of the way if the grantor owns it. The statute applied retroactively unless the title holder or predecessor changed position as a result of a court decision. Interpreting the current description in the deed, there were no words of reservation as required by the statute.

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In a current real estate case, Massachusetts property owners brought an action seeking to annul a special permit granted by the town’s planning board for the construction of a 16-unit housing development. In Parker v. Freedman (Mass. Land Ct. Aug. 26, 2016), the plaintiffs contended the development would negatively affect their property and the surrounding neighborhood with increased traffic, noise, and congestion, and the plan would impermissibly allow the public onto their property, overburdening the right of way easement.

In Parker, the plaintiffs’ lot was between another single-family residence and the defendant’s lot. A right of way easement over a driveway partially located on the plaintiffs’ property allowed vehicles access across the lots in order to reach a public road. The special permit at issue provided for public access to the future condominium building over the right of way easement for the purposes of parking and using trails to be established on an open space parcel. The proposed development and the public trails, the plaintiffs argued, would drastically increase the intensity of the use of the driveway and overburden the right of way to their detriment.

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In a recent case, the Superior Court of Massachusetts took issue with the bad-faith dealings of a corporation involved in easement negotiations with its neighboring residents. In Nicoli v. Gooby Indus. Corp. (Mass. Super. Sept. 2, 2016), the plaintiffs’ residential parcel of land shared a boundary with a manufacturing company. When the defendant failed to honor its agreement to sell the plaintiffs a portion of its land, the plaintiffs brought suit. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the defendant engaged in a pattern of bad faith that compelled an equitable outcome.

In Nicoli, the plaintiffs owned an L-shaped parcel of land neighboring the defendant’s property. After moving into their home, the plaintiffs contacted the defendant to inquire about purchasing a 30 by 28 foot parcel of its land to make the plaintiffs’ lot a complete rectangle. The defendant ignored the plaintiffs’ repeated requests for several years. In 2012, seeking to expand its plant, the defendant held a series of meetings with the neighborhood and city officials. Despite some neighborhood opposition, the city eventually approved the expansion plans in 2013.

The original expansion plans included the construction of a retaining wall that would have placed the 30 by 28 foot parcel of land on the plaintiffs’ side of the wall. In order to complete the restraining wall, however, the defendant needed to obtain easements from the owners of the abutting properties, including the plaintiffs. These easements were necessary because of the considerable disruption and mess caused to the neighboring yards. The plaintiffs agreed to grant the defendant an easement only after the defendant agreed to convey to them the parcel of land at issue. The defendant’s attorney hurriedly drafted an agreement in order to quickly obtain the plaintiffs’ signature on the easement, which the plaintiffs signed without seeking their own legal counsel.

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In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Massachusetts reviewed an easement dispute in which the plaintiff complained of the growing public use of a private way adjacent to his property. In Goff v. Town of Randolph (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 12, 2016), the plaintiff’s property was located at the end of a private way and included easement rights, in common with others, to use the way. In 2009, the town acquired title to an 11-acre parcel of land abutting the plaintiff’s property, and it opened it to the public as a community park. The town made the park accessible by a path next to the plaintiff’s property that connected to the end of the private way at issue. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the town, alleging that the creation of the path had facilitated and encouraged public use of the private way located partially on his property. After the lower court granted the town’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff appealed.

In Goff, the plaintiff proceed with his suit pro se, and the appeals court acknowledged that his allegations would be liberally construed. The court, therefore, construed the plaintiff’s allegations to include a taking of private property with respect to the portion of a cul-de-sac on his land after requesting the termination of public use. The court interpreted his claim as one brought under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in that the portion of his property on which the new path and stone post were built were taken for public use without just compensation.

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In a newly issued opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts discussed whether the federal government or the Massachusetts Land Court had proper jurisdiction in an easement dispute involving a railroad. In Murray v. Dep’t of Conservation & Recreation (Mass. Aug. 4, 2016), the plaintiffs brought an action to quiet title, claiming that a railroad easement across portions of their lands was abandoned after the United States Railway Association (USRA) transferred rail lines from eight bankrupt rail carriers pursuant to the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (the Act). Since the rail line over the easement on the plaintiffs’ lands was not part of the reorganization, the plaintiffs contended that it was abandoned by virtue of its non-designation in the USRA’s final system plan. The Land Court concluded that the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) had exclusive and primary jurisdiction over the matter and that a certificate of abandonment from the STB was necessary before a state court could exercise jurisdiction over the parties’ dispute. The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the issue.

Generally, before any rail line may be abandoned, a certificate of abandonment must be obtained from the appropriate federal agency. Federal law expressly confers exclusive authority to regulate the abandonment of rail lines, with certain exceptions, on the STB. One of the exceptions to this exclusive authority developed when, in the early 1970s, eight major railroads entered into bankruptcy reorganization proceedings. Congress enacted the 1973 Act establishing the USRA and charged it with preparing a final system plan for restructuring the railroads into a financially self-sustaining system. The 1973 Act also authorized the abandonment of rail properties and easements, notwithstanding any provision of state law, the Constitution, or any administrative or judiciary decision.

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In a recent decision, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reversed the judgment of a lower court in a case involving an easement dispute. In Melrose Fish & Game Club, Inc. v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., LLC, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 594 (2016), the defendant, a gas pipeline company, constructed a natural gas pipeline facility in 1998 across an area over which the plaintiffs claimed an easement. The area was a “paper” street, one that is shown on a plan but not built on the ground. The plaintiffs brought a trespass action against the defendant, alleging interference with an easement. The superior court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion against the plaintiffs, and the plaintiffs subsequently appealed.

On appeal, the court found that the plaintiffs possessed an easement by estoppel over the length of the avenue on which the facility was built. The court explained that when a grantor conveys land bounded on a street or way, the right to an easement of way extends the entire length of the street. The grantor cannot then deny the existence of a way, based upon the principle of estoppel. In Melrose Fish & Game Club, Inc., the plaintiffs’ lot abutted the avenue, and thus the court held that the plaintiffs also possessed a valid easement.

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In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Land Court reviewed a case involving an easement dispute between two neighboring landowners.  In Teare v. Stockwell (Mass. Land Ct. May 20, 2016), the parties lived across from each other on a private way and disagreed as to their respective rights to use the lane.

The first question for the land court was whether the plaintiff had a deeded, recorded interest to use the entire width of the lane, in the form of an easement.  The court looked at the deed to determine the existence of an easement.  In Massachusetts, the meaning of the deed, derived from the presumed intent of the grantor, is to be ascertained from the words used in the written instrument and construed when necessary in the light of the attendant circumstances.  In Teare, the court found that the lot owners of the subdivision were originally granted the same rights to use and install utilities along the lane at issue from the common grantor.  Pursuant to G.L. c. 183 sec. 15, subsequent deeds also conveyed those rights as a matter of law.

The court therefore followed the history of conveyances, finding that the easement originally granted was extinguished through merger in 1997.  Under the common-law doctrine of merger, easements are extinguished by unity of title and possession of the two estates by the same person at the same time.  However, in 1998, the lot was again conveyed subject to a roadway easement, which expressly reserved and re-granted the easement over the lane.  When the plaintiff acquired title to the lot, therefore, he also acquired the easements, restrictions, and reservations over that portion of the lane. Despite the plaintiff’s subsequent reconfiguration of the lot, the court ruled that there remained an easement for the benefit of the plaintiff’s property, to enter and use a portion of the private way now owned by the defendants for passage and access.

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In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Land Court was presented with the question of whether the defendants had a legal right of access or easement to their undeveloped parcel of land at the dead end of a street. In Diodati v. Kohl (Mass. Land Ct. Apr. 13, 2016), the plaintiffs filed an action seeking a declaration that the defendants had no rights to access the property via the street, arguing that the portion of the street at issue was part of the plaintiffs’ properties and not a public way. The defendants contended that the end of the street was a public way over which they had rights of access, and that their property was landlocked without such access.

In Massachusetts, a road may become a public way by one of three methods:  (1) a laying out by public authority in the manner prescribed by statute (G.L. c. 82, §§ 1–32); (2) prescription; or (3) prior to 1846, a dedication by the owner coupled with acceptance by the public. In Diodati, a portion of the street at issue had been statutorily made a public way in 1921 by the town, but not all the way to the dead end of the street where the defendants’ property was located. The defendants argued that the rest of the street had become a public way because the town owned it by prescription. However, the creation of a public way by adverse use depends on a showing of actual public use that is general, uninterrupted, and existing continuously for 20 years. The court was not persuaded by the defendants’ argument, finding that there was no activity in that portion of the street that would establish that it was a public way.

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In a newly published decision, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts determined whether easements by necessity were created as a result of an 1878 partition of Native American common land in the town of Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head). In Maria A. Kitras, trustee, & others v. Town of Aquinnah & others (Mass. Dec. 8, 2015), the common land at issue was partitioned in 1878 by the court into hundreds of lots to be held in severalty by members of the Tribe. Significantly, the drafters did not include express easements providing rights of access, leaving the lots landlocked. The plaintiffs are owners of several lots created by this partition and sought easements by necessity over the lots of the defendants. The Land Court found in favor of the defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The facts of the case underscore the evolving property and citizenship rights of Native Americans during the time. In the mid-nineteenth century, Massachusetts began to depart from a paternalistic system of governance and move toward granting Native Americans full citizenship. In 1862, the Legislature established the district of Gay Head, which consisted of 450 acres of land held in severalty and the remainder held by the Tribe in common. As the boundary lines were being determined in Gay Head, Native Americans were granted full citizenship in Massachusetts. Gay Head was subsequently incorporated as a town, and commissioners appointed by the probate judge divided the common land for the residents to hold in severalty, as well as the boundary lines. However, none of the lots included an express easement of access, and as a result, the majority of the lots divided from the common land were landlocked.

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