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Athens v. Oliver

WRN-C-16017-05 (N.J. Super. Ch. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

DEEDS; RIGHTS-OF-WAY — Where a grant of a right-of-way in a deed is ambiguous and there is nothing in the text of the deed that limits or defines how, or the extent to which, the right-of-way was to be utilized, a court may look at the facts and circumstances as a clear intent about the grant including whether the grant was made at a time when people accessed properties by automobile.

Two homeowners purchased a home. It had access to the street through a portion of an adjacent property. The homeowners were under the impression that the deed to their home included a right of way through that portion of their neighbor’s property. The portion in question contained part of their own paved driveway. The neighbor had purchased its property roughly fourteen years after the homeowners had bought theirs and soon afterwards notified the homeowners that he wanted the portion of their driveway that was on his property removed and relocated. The neighbor claimed that there was never a right of way for the adjacent property. The homeowners sought a court order restraining the neighbor from interfering with their right of way, which they asserted was an express easement. The neighbor brought a counterclaim and sought an order to enjoin the homeowners from trespassing on his property, sought reformation of the homeowners’ deed, and sought damages resulting from the presence of the homeowners’ driveway.

The Court reviewed the chain of title and found that a prior owner had once owned both properties and later subdivided them. One portion was retained by the owner and the other portion contained a right of way specifically for the grantee, his wife, and his heirs and assigns. The grant did not express its purpose. The neighbor argued that the disputed portion of the homeowners’ driveway was never conveyed to the original grantee of the homeowners’ property. He also argued that there was no municipal record of the driveway, that the driveway itself was in violation of a municipal ordinance, and that it should have been removed because the municipality never approved its paving.

The Court noted that if a grant of a right of way in a deed is ambiguous, its meaning was to be strongly construed against the grantor. Here, the Court found that the language of the deed in question revealed the intent by the grantors to convey an interest in a portion of their property, now the neighbor’s, to the grantee. The Court also noted out that a grant of a right of way over twenty feet in width was a grant of a convenient way. It additionally noted that since there was nothing in the text of the deed from the grantor to the grantee that limited or defined how, or the extent to which, the right of way was to be utilized, it needed to look at the facts and circumstances to ascertain the clear intent of the grant of the right of way. The Court further noted that the division of the properties occurred at a time when it was common for people to access their homes by automobiles.

The Court found that the only possible purpose of the right of way was to provide access to the homeowners’ property. It also found that it would be an affront to principles of equity to have found that the right of way was not intended for vehicular access, and concluded that while not every right of way is intended for vehicular access, the homeowners had the right to continue driving to the street with their motor vehicles. The Court differentiated the matter from an earlier case in which a pebble driveway was enjoined from being paved by the grantee of an easement since the homeowners’ driveway was already paved when the homeowners purchased it. It found that it would be inequitable to remove this homeowners’ paved driveway, which was constructed many years before they purchased the property. The Court pointed out that the neighbor’s predecessors in title never took any action against the driveway or a lamppost that was built to provide light for the driveway and allowed the lamppost to remain under the same equitable principles that allowed the driveway to remain.

The Court rejected the neighbor’s argument that the homeowners’ title insurance policy, which did not cover the homeowners’ rights in the use of the driveway, was evidence of an illegal encroachment on the homeowners’ part and found that the policy was not evidential of the grantor’s intent. The Court also rejected the neighbor’s argument that because the driveway and the lamppost were constructed without permission from the municipality more than thirty years earlier by a previous owner, the driveway had to be removed. The Court further rejected the neighbor’s assertion that since the driveway was once a dirt path, the paved driveway changed the character of the homeowners’ property against the intent of the grantors. Instead, it found the neighbor’s assertion not to be determinative because the intent of the easement was for the purpose of ingress and egress from the homeowners’ property and that the homeowners were allowed to use as much of the right of way as necessary to accomplish that purpose. The Court did not opine as to the homeowners’ right to relocate, repave or otherwise expand the driveway or their use of the right of way, because these were specific, factual matters not in dispute at the time.

The Court granted summary judgment for the homeowners, finding that the doctrine of laches, by the passage of time, precluded an order compelling the homeowners to remove the payment. It noted that the neighbor remained the owner of the disputed area in fee simple, but that the homeowners had no right to interfere with the neighbor’s use of his property as long as the neighbor’s actions did not interfere with their right of access to their home. The Court also noted that any prospective plans for the neighbor to improve his own property were matters to be determined at a later time. Additionally, it noted that not all disputes between the parties were being resolved in the attendant proceedings, but made it clear to both parties that it would not tolerate any harassing behavior by either one directed at the other.

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