Massachusetts High Court Draws Bright Line in Sand on Expansion of Easement Rights to Additional Land
In his recent blog post, “SJC Keeps Bright-Line Test for Overloading of Easements,” Pierce Atwood real estate partner Don Pinto discusses Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, a recent decision in which the Massachusetts high court put the brakes on a trend toward eliminating bright lines in the enforcement of easement rights.
Taylor involved a nature preserve on Martha’s Vineyard encompassing the famed Gay Head cliffs. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission (Land Bank), which owns and manages the preserve, has an easement over the grounds of a nearby inn owned by Taylor Realty Trust (Trust). In 2010 the Land Bank created a hiking trail that crosses the Trust’s property onto three Land Bank-owned lots that are benefited by the easement and then continues onto a fourth Land Bank-owned lot that isn’t benefited.
The Trust filed a lawsuit to prevent the Land Bank from using the new hiking trail, invoking the traditional rule that an easement can only benefit land it was originally intended to benefit. The Land Bank argued that the traditional rule is too rigid and urged the court to instead consider whether extension of the trail to the un-benefited lot would unfairly “overload” the easement. The Land Bank claimed this extension would result in no increase in the use of the easement. The trial court rejected the Land Bank’s argument and ruled for the Trust.
On appeal the SJC affirmed the trial court’s decision. While acknowledging that the Land Bank’s approach has the benefit of flexibility, the court concluded that the costs of this flexibility are too high. Among the significant costs the court cited are the need to decide, on a case-by-case basis, “difficult factual issues” of how broadly or narrowly the purpose of the easement should be defined, whether the proposed expanded use was contemplated by the original parties, and the likely impacts on the owner of the land subject to the easement. The SJC’s greatest concern, though, was the uncertainty this approach would create for land owners. The court concluded, “The bright-line rule . . . provides owners of servient property with certainty regarding their possessory rights. The benefits of this certainty outweigh the perceived advantages of a more flexible rule.”
Pierce Atwood partner Don Pinto discusses the Taylor decision in more detail on his real estate law blog, massdirtlaw.com. You can reach Don in the firm’s Boston office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617.488.8175. Please follow Don on Twitter at @massdirtlaw.