1993-N3 New Jersey Associates, L.P. v. Club Atlantis Enterprises, Inc.

A-4135-97T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: June 4, 1999

EASEMENTS—An easement granting the user “free and unmolested use” of beachfront property can serve to deny the beach owner of nearly any right to build a structure on the beach.

A hotel property was separated from the ocean by a private beach. Title to the hotel property included an easement across the beach, reading as follows: “TOGETHER with the free and unmolested use and easement of the beach fronting on the demised premises for the free use and benefit of the owners, tenants, guests, servants, agents and employees provided however that grantee herein, his heirs, and assigns shall erect no structure on the beach nor conduct any business thereon.” The owner of the private beach proposed to construct a condominium project which would cover between seven and sixteen percent of the lot leaving 84% of the beach available for recreational purposes. The lower court was impressed by the language of the grant which it found to be unambiguous, and which contemplated the unmolested use of the beach. In its view, the proposed construction would have impermissibly interfered with the easement and would, in effect, sever the area fronting the hotel from whatever beach may have survived the condominium’s construction, leaving no “beach fronting on the demised premises.” As a result, the lower court issued an order barring any construction whatsoever on the private beach. In its view, the construction would have violated the expressed terms of the easement. Among the many arguments raised by the beach owner was the assertion that the easement was not unlimited and did not convey title. It reasoned that “[b]y its very nature ... [the] easement cannot bar development of an entire piece of property.” The Appellate Division recited that the rights of an easement-holder as against the landowner depend primarily “on the intent of the parties as expressed in the language of the grant, viewed in the light of the nature and reasonably necessary incidents of the permitted use… .” Analyzing the facts of the case, the Court rejected all arguments made by the beach owner. When the beach owner pointed to case law that allowed relocation of easements, the Court found all of those cases to be distinguishable because this beach easement was not one of egress or right-of-way, but, rather, was one of entitlement to the “free and unmolested use” of the beach fronting the hotel. “While it is plausible to relocate an access road or alley-way, the same cannot be said about relocating an easement granting ‛unmolested use ... of the beach fronting on the demised premises.’” The Court’s ultimate inquiry in this case was whether the easement use was being exercised “not in a manner determined by mere convenience of the easement holder, but only in that way which is reasonably necessary for its full enjoyment,” heeding the principle that “easement use shall not unreasonably interfere with the use of, or increase the burden upon, the landowner (beyond that expressly dictated by the instrument)... .” With this in mind, the Appellate Division, agreeing with the lower court, held that allowing the construction would essentially extinguish the easement because there would no longer be a beach fronting the premises and the use would no longer be “unmolested.” Simply put, the hotel would no longer be a “beachfront hotel.” Therefore, “the proposed development project and the preservation of the easement’s ‛full enjoyment’ cannot co-exist.”

On the other hand, the Appellate Division felt that a prohibition against all forms of development on the beach, regardless of size and magnitude, contradicted the principle that use of the easement should not unreasonably interfere with the use of, or increase the burden upon, the landowner over whose land the easement runs. Therefore, it struck that part of the lower court’s order enjoining “any and all other construction and/or activities of any nature,” and left further developments to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.