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.