The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) confirmed that its move away from the common law requirement of mutual consent for easement relocation was broad and included the ability to alter not only the location but the dimensions of easements. The SJC's decision in Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC, on January 16, 2014 presented the SJC with its first chance to elaborate upon and expand its prior holding in M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer, 442 Mass. 87, 809 N.E.2d 1053 (2004), discussed in detail in my article on developments in the eight years since the M.P.M. Builders decision.
In M.P.M. Builders, the court jettisoned the longstanding, common law requirement that both servient and dominant estate owners must agree to an easement relocation and adopted Section 4.8(3) of the Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) (2000) in its stead. Section 4.8(3) states as follows:
Unless expressly denied by the terms of an easement, as defined in § 1.2, the owner of the servient estate is entitled to make reasonable changes in the location or dimensions of an easement, at the servient owner's expense, to permit normal use or development of the servient estate, but only if the changes do not (a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the owner of the easement in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created.
Though it formally adopted Section 4.8(3), M.P.M. Builders only concerned the relocation of an easement, and not "changes in the . . . dimensions of an easement," as also contemplated by the section. In the intervening years, there have been trial-level decisions from the Massachusetts Land Court applying Section 4.8(3) to allow for the unilateral narrowing or diminution of easement areas, but no appellate level decision had addressed this issue until Martin.
In Martin, the SJC re-affirmed that M.P.M. Builders had adopted Section 4.8(3) in its entirety, as the law of Massachusetts and held that the reasoning of M.P.M. Builders "applies as well to circumstances such as those here, where there has been no relocation of the easement, but where the width of the unobstructed easement has been narrowed in some places, while still leaving travel by any existing or foreseeable vehicle unimpeded." This expansion of M.P.M. Builders has huge practical potential, as frequently rights of way are not developed to the dimensions depicted on the corresponding plans of record, or the full linear extent of easements are, practically, unnecessary. It provides a potent alternative to various claims for extinguishment of portions of easement areas, by abandonment, adverse use, or estoppel, all of which can be quite difficult to prove at trial.
Martin also holds that the principle of M.P.M. Builders applies equally to recorded and registered land alike. The decision, in addition, notably abrogates, by implication sub silentio, the requirement explicitly set forth in M.P.M. Builders that a servient estate owner must seek a judicial determination sanctioning a relocation first before effecting the move. In Martin, the narrowing of the right of way had occurred, in fact, decades before the litigation, but this fact did not bar the SJC from providing Simmons Properties, LLC, relief under Section 4.8(3).
Martin otherwise contains a veritable panoply of tenets of the law of servitudes in Massachusetts, including, for instance, the significant, but infrequently cited, principle that easement holders bear the cost of any necessary restoration or maintenance. The Martin decision is thus destined to be cited with great frequency in the years to come, and is required reading for any real estate litigator in Massachusetts.
This piece was previously published in the American Bar Association's website, and published here with the assent of the American Bar Association.
Written by Nicholas P. Shapiro, Esq.
Copyright (c) 2011-2014 by Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. All rights reserved.
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