Massachusetts Landowners Seek Access Over Neighboring Property Through Discontinued Public Easement

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.

The Massachusetts Land Court considered evidence including old maps, testimony from experts, and other reliable documents and records.  The court concluded that the town meeting votes had discontinued all public aspects of both of the dirt roadways at issue.  Furthermore, the court found no evidence of any public use of the roadways after the 1886 discontinuance, only use by the owners and invitees of the properties on which they were located.  Accordingly, the court held that the roads were no longer public and that the public had not acquired any rights in the roads thereafter.

The court then addressed the plaintiffs’ claim to the easement by prescription.  In Massachusetts, prescriptive rights require actual, open, notorious, adverse, and continuing use for 20 years or more.  The court, however, found no evidence that the plaintiffs or their predecessors used the roadways in any manner since 1886, other than occasional walks by one of the plaintiffs after 1994, since the roadways were fenced off and did not lead anywhere that could not be reached by other public roads.

An easement by necessity may arise when a common owner of land conveys a landlocked portion of it without an express right of access to a road, and the portion so conveyed remains landlocked.  In such situations, the law implies an easement across the grantor’s retained land to give such access.  Since the plaintiffs’ land was not landlocked, the court held there was no such easement.  The court found an express easement existed in the deed of one of the plaintiffs, over part of one of the dirt roads.  However, no other easement rights existed over both roadways for use by all of the plaintiffs.

At Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts real estate attorneys have worked with many residential homeowners and potential buyers toward achieving their objectives.  We can advise individuals with questions about mortgage re-financing, title actions, building permit applications, contracts, and any other residential property issue.  Schedule an appointment by calling our office at (781) 843-2200 or contacting us through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Land Court Denies Non-Owner’s Claim of Prescriptive Rights in Beach Property, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published May 1, 2017

Massachusetts Homeowners Acquire Ownership Rights to Portion of Neighbor’s Lot, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published November 27, 2017

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