SJC Keeps Bright-Line Test for Overloading of Easements

In its recent decision in Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission (pdf), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) put the brakes on a trend toward eliminating bright lines in the enforcement of easement rights.

The Facts

The case involved a nature preserve on Martha’s Vineyard encompassing the famed Gay Head cliffs (pictured).  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), connected to the equally famed singing Taylor family.  In 2010 the Land Bank created a looped hiking trail that runs across 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 is not benefited.

The Land Court Case

The Trust, invoking the black-letter rule that an easement can’t be used to benefit land to which it’s not appurtenant, filed a case in Land Court to prevent the Land Bank from using the new hiking trail.  The Land Bank argued that the black-letter rule is too rigid and the court should instead consider whether extension of the trail to the fourth, un-benefited lot would unfairly “overload” the easement.  Under such a test, the Land Bank argued, this extension would be permitted because it’s unlikely to result in any increase in use of the easement over the Trust’s property.  The Land Bank may have been emboldened to make this pitch by the SJC’s decisions in M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer (pdf) and Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC (pdf), in which the court adopted new “modern” rules allowing an owner of land subject to an easement to (1) relocate or reduce the dimensions of the easement, or (2) obstruct portions of the easement, provided these changes don’t significantly lessen the utility of the easement or increase the burdens on the easement holder in using and enjoying it (see my Boston Bar Journal article on the Martin case here).  The Land Court, however, was not persuaded and ruled for the Trust.

The SJC Decision

The SJC took the case on direct appellate review and affirmed the Land Court’s judgment, declining the Land Bank’s invitation to further “modernize” easement law by allowing easement rights to extend beyond the parcel the easement was intended to benefit.  While acknowledging that the Land Bank’s proposed rule has the benefit of flexibility, the court said, “That flexibility, however, comes with significant costs.”  Among the unacceptable costs the court cited was the resulting need to decide, on a case-by-case basis,

difficult factual issues as to how broadly or narrowly the purpose [of the easement] should be defined, whether the proposed [expanded use] is . . . of the sort that should have been contemplated by the parties, how much damage or interference is likely to ensue, and whether
it is reasonable.

The court noted that it doesn’t reject desirable developments in the law simply because they might spur litigation (citing as proof its decision in M.P.M. Builders), but emphasized that its concern here is with “the uncertainty that the prospect of such litigation would introduce in land ownership.”  The court concluded:

In sum, 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.

The Take Away

Despite the more flexible approach to easement rights signaled by M.P.M. Builders and Martin, the traditional bright-line rule limiting easement rights to the land intended to be benefited remains in full force and effect.