Massachusetts Court of Appeal Rules on Ownership and Easement Issue

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed a decision by the Land Court in a case involving the ownership and use of a private street. In Anarpet Realty Corp. v. Stutz Motor Car Co., 39 N.E.3d 472 (Mass. App. Ct. 2015), the property owner filed a complaint against several defendants, seeking a declaration of the rights of the parties and injunctive relief regarding the ownership and use of a private way. The Land Court found in favor of the defendants, ruling that the defendants’ lots included a fee interest to the private way as well as easement rights, and the easement wasn’t overburdened by the defendants. The plaintiff appealed, and the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s judgment regarding the issues pertaining to the private way.

In Massachusetts, when a grantor of land that borders a street conveys that land by a deed that describes the land as bordering the street, it is presumed that the grantor has conveyed the fee to the middle of the street. When lots are conveyed by a deed making reference to a plan, and the plan referred to in the deed shows the land as bounded on a street, this is equivalent to such a description in the deed, and the presumption becomes operative. However, this presumption is not an absolute rule of law, but merely a principle of interpretation adopted for the purpose of finding out the true meaning of the words used.

The plaintiff argued, therefore, that the presumption should not be followed, since circumstances surrounding the original conveyance indicated that the original grantor intended to retain ownership over the private street. The appeals court disagreed with the plaintiff, stating that the original owner had conveyed away all of his property on both sides of the private street. It also found that no evidence existed to show that the owner intended to reserve his fee in the way to further a plan of development of other neighboring parcels.

Generally, when a grantor conveys land bounded by a street, the easement rights acquired by the grantee coexist with the land conveyed, as well as the entire length of the street, and the grantor cannot deny the grantee access. The plaintiff argued on appeal that such “easements by estoppel” are contrary to the purpose of the land registration act, but the appeals court did not agree. The court noted that under G.L. c. 185, the holder of title owns the land free from all encumbrances except those noted on the certificate of title. Since the plaintiff’s certificate of title expressly stated that the property is subject to and has the benefit of an easement in the private street “in common with others for all purposes for which public ways are or may be ordinarily used,” the plaintiff was additionally put on notice that the defendants’ lots possess easement rights in the street.

Lastly, the plaintiff argued that the defendants’ use was overloading and overburdening the street. Generally, an obligation exists between common easement holders to act reasonably in the exercise of their use of the street, in order not to interfere unreasonably with the rights of other easement holders. The appeals court deferred to the Land Court’s findings, finding that it did not abuse its discretion in determining that the defendants’ use was not overloading and overburdening the street.

If you are involved in a property dispute or land ownership issue, a real estate attorney can advocate for your interests under the law. The Massachusetts attorneys at Pulgini & Norton offer experienced legal representation to clients in a variety of real estate matters, including mortgages, closings, home sales, refinancing, and others. To discuss your real estate needs with one of our attorneys, call (781) 843-2200, or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court of Massachusetts Decides Easement Issue in Neighbors’ Dispute, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 4, 2015

Massachusetts Land Court Defines “Public Way” in Property Division Dispute, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 11, 2015

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