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Friday, October 28, 2016

Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission

By Caitlin E. Loftus

Massachusetts courts have long applied a bright-line rule, established in 1965 in Murphy v. Mart Realty of Brockton, Inc., that prohibits the use of an easement to benefit land to which that easement is not appurtenant. The Supreme Judicial Court recently examined a challenge to this rule in Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Comm’n, 475 Mass. 672, a dispute over the scope of easements benefitting several parcels owned by the Land Bank in Aquinnah.

 The Land Bank advocated replacing the rule with a fact-intensive inquiry weighing whether the use of a particular easement to access non-appurtenant parcels unfairly increases the burden on that easement. After granting direct appellate review and soliciting amicus briefs, the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the rule set forth in Murphy in a concise and unanimous decision.

 The Land Bank owns and manages a nature preserve on the Gay Head Cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard. At issue in Taylor were four parcels in the preserve benefitting from two separate easements over property owned by the plaintiffs Hugh and Jeanne Taylor. The easements provide access to and from Lighthouse Road, the nearest public way.  Neither easement is appurtenant to all four parcels. The first easement, referred to as the Disputed Way, is appurtenant to the three southernmost parcels. The second easement, referred to as the Twenty-Foot Way, is appurtenant to the northernmost parcel, so-called Diem Lot 5. A separate parcel, owned by the Taylors and on which they operate the Outermost Inn, connects the southernmost parcel to Lighthouse Road.

 In May, 2010, the Land Bank received approval for a plan to create a hiking trail over the four lots. The plan called for both easements to be incorporated into a single loop trail. The proposed loop, beginning at Lighthouse Road, would run the full length of the Disputed Way over the Taylors’ property and then continue over the three southernmost parcels. The trail would then run over Diem Lot 5 and intersect with the Twenty-Foot Way, running along the Twenty-Foot Way until returning to the trail’s point of origin at Lighthouse Road.

 Land Court Decision

In June, 2010, the Taylors filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that the Land Bank could not use the Disputed Way as part of the proposed hiking trail. Because the Disputed Way was appurtenant only to three parcels, the Taylors argued the Land Bank could not use it to reach the fourth parcel, Diem Lot 5, and that such use constituted overloading. Plaintiffs also argued that opening the Disputed Way to the public, even without using it to reach Diem Lot 5, constituted overburdening. Overloading refers to the use of an easement to serve land other than that to which it is appurtenant, while overburdening describes the use of an easement for purposes different from those intended when it was created.   

 Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment in March, 2011, which was allowed in part. The Land Court judge ruled that incorporating the Disputed Way into a hiking loop that reached Diem Lot 5 would overload the easement and, accordingly, any trail over the Disputed Way must end before connecting to Diem Lot 5. This effectively divided the proposed loop into two separate trails that would prevent hikers from completing a single connected loop. The judge denied summary judgment on the overburdening issue, finding there was a genuine issue of material fact whether opening the Disputed Way to the public would unreasonably increase pedestrian traffic. After conducting a trial on the overburdening issue, he concluded that such public use fell within the easement’s original scope and did not constitute overburdening. Final judgment issued, incorporating the summary judgment decision.

 The Land Bank appealed and applied for direct appellate review. Its notice of appeal challenged only the summary judgment ruling that the Disputed Way could not be used to benefit Diem Lot 5. Direct appellate review was allowed.

SJC Decision  

Under Murphy, “a right of way appurtenant to the land conveyed cannot be used by the owner of the dominant tenement to pass to or from other land adjacent to or beyond that to which the easement is appurtenant.” Both parties agreed that under this rule, the Land Bank is prohibited from using the Disputed Way to access a parcel the easement was not intended to benefit, in this case, Diem Lot 5. The Land Bank, however, urged the SJC to adopt a new rule replacing the bright-line Murphy rule. It proposed a fact-based inquiry to determine whether use of an easement to benefit non-appurtenant land would place additional burdens on a servient estate and, if yes, whether the additional burdens would constitute an unfair extension beyond the easement’s original scope. Under the proposed rule, the Land Bank argued use of the Disputed Way to reach Diem Lot 5 would not constitute overloading, as pedestrian traffic over the Taylors’ property was unlikely to increase merely because the Disputed Way could now be used to access a fourth lot.

While the SJC acknowledged the proposed rule provided more flexibility, it ultimately was not persuaded that the benefits of flexibility outweighed its costs. The SJC explained a new rule could inject uncertainty in land ownership, where individuals often base their actions and decisions on existing precedent, and further stated it could potentially extend the litigation process, hurting owners of small servient parcels lacking the financial means to challenge defendants seeking to acquire and develop multiple parcels of land. The proposed fact-intensive inquiry also presented difficult factual disputes, such as defining an easement’s purpose or determining whether an expansion of the easement’s use would cause unreasonable damage or interference. The SJC expressly hoped to avoid these situations with the formulation of the Murphy rule.

 The SJC noted that maintaining the Murphy rule comported with the principle that the terms and conditions of an easement are well within the control of the parties creating it. The SJC distinguished the out-of-state cases cited by the Land Bank in support of a more fact-based analysis as situations in which the parties, at the time they created the easements, intended or contemplated that they could benefit after-acquired or non-appurtenant lots. Here, however, the Disputed Way was not intended to benefit Diem Lot 5 at the time of its creation.

 The SJC rejected the Land Bank’s assertions that the Murphy rule creates “substantial impracticalit[ies]” for landowners in similar situations and is inconsistent with the public policy favoring “socially productive” uses of land. The application of the bright-line rule in Taylor will not prevent hikers from making use of both the Disputed Way and the Twenty-Foot Way. It only prevents them from walking the two trails in a single connected loop. This disconnect may be inconvenient, but the SJC did not view it as a “substantial impracticality.”

 After taking this case for direct appellate review, some may have wondered whether the bright-line rule articulated in Murphy was marked for replacement or modification. The SJC stated that, while it may deviate from precedent, it chooses to do so only when the benefits of the change outweigh those provided by stare decisis.  In upholding the Murphy rule, and declining to add or create exceptions, the SJC found that the certainty provided by a bright-line rule defining a property owner’s rights outweighed any perceived advantages of a more flexible standard.

Caitlin Loftus is a research attorney at the Land Court Department of the Trial Court.  Prior to that she served as law clerk to Associate Justice Karyn F. Scheier.

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