Bahrs v. Gateway Realty, Inc.

A-2923-98T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: May 8, 2000

EASEMENTS; OVERBURDENING—Not every instance of overburdening an easement warrants extinguishment of the easement or limitation of the easement to ease the overburdening caused by the use.

The owner of “Lot 7” had the right to use “Lot 8” (a twenty-foot roadway) for ingress and egress from the public highway. At the time of this grant of easement, there was a commercial building on one part of Lot 7 and seven summer bungalows at its rear. Adjacent lot 6 was similarly developed. People occupying the bungalows generated little motor vehicle traffic. Lot 8 was used as a driveway to reach a pier. Commercial users drove their vehicles over Lot 8 on a daily basis. Each user had a lease agreement or the consent of the owner to do so. Eventually, the bungalows situated on Lots 6 and 7 were removed, and a subsequent conversion from a seasonal residential property to a marina boatyard dramatically increased the character and frequency of the use of the easement over Lot 8. The owner of Lot 8 claimed that seasonal pedestrian traffic was replaced by year round vehicular traffic from cars and several varieties of commercial vehicles. The owner of Lot 8 also asserted that the easement was expanded because users of Lot 6 were now using the easement. As early as 1986, the owner of Lot 8 informed the owner of Lots 6 and 7 that she objected to the new use and claimed that the increased traffic put an added burden on Lot 8. At the trial of the dispute over the easement, the parties stipulated that it had become impossible to distinguish between the lawful users and the unlawful users since the consolidation of Lots 6 and 7 into a single, new lot. The lower court denied relief to the owner of Lot 8. Noting the absence of any express limitation on the use of the easement, the lower court concluded that “the original grantor did not anticipate that the easement would be used only by the tenants of the summer bungalows then located on the property; and, considering the absence of any express restriction in the deed, the easement was intended to tolerate any reasonable use that might flow from any legitimate use of the dominant tenement.” Accordingly, the lower court concluded that the current use of Lots 6 and 7 as a boatyard/marina did not constitute a departure from the terms of the easement. The court also rejected the argument that use of the easement overburdened Lot 8 and emphasized that not every instance of overburdening warrants extinguishment of an easement or its limitation to ease the overburdening. The court reasoned that the owner of Lots 6 and 7 and its predecessor had “long operated the premises as a commercial marine business,” and there had been no substantial increase in the use of the easement as to warrant relief. The lower court also concluded that the owner of Lot 8 had slept on her rights for at least thirteen years and allowed the neighboring marina/boatyard to utilize the easement without any complaint for over a decade. The owner of Lot 8, on appeal, argued that: (1) the easement was clear and unambiguous and that the lower court erred in considering facts and circumstances beyond the four corners of the deed; (2) the lower court erred in not finding that the owner of Lots 6 and 7 or its predecessors had increased the burden on the dominant tenement in violation of the easement; and (3) laches did not bar this action. When an easement is created by express conveyance, the instrument granting or reserving a right-of-way must be read as a whole and will be construed to carry out the evident intent of the parties. When the intent of the parties is evident from an examination of the instrument, and the language is unambiguous, the terms of the instrument govern. Here, the easement was a general easement of ingress and egress. It was neither limited nor restricted. The terms were plain and clear and, therefore, unambiguous. Accordingly, the Court found no need to engage in any analysis concerning the intent of the parties beyond the four corners of the instrument. According to the express terms of the easement, Lot 8 was for ingress and egress solely to Lot 7 and did not allow parking within the easement. Consequently, the Court remanded the matter to the lower court for an order barring parking on Lot 8, and also for an order barring use of the easement for ingress and egress to lands that were clearly not part of Lots 6 or 7. With respect to Lots 6 and 7, the parties conceded that the marina/boatyard operation being conducted on the combined lots was an integrated operation not capable of severance. Further, although the Court held that the application of laches could not be applied to the easement, even when the doctrine of laches might have applied, the lower court was required to apply a different standard, where, as here, the owner of Lot 8 was seeking injunctive relief. “In other words, regardless of whether a defendant raises the laches defense, a court may consider whether the plaintiff has unreasonably delayed seeking an injunction.” The Appellate Division found that the lower court had done just that when it observed that the significantly more intense use of the easement had begun more than 13 years prior to the actual lawsuit. Finally, the Court held that there was no evidence that demonstrated any increased burden or hardship to the owner of Lot 8 as a result of addition of Lot 6 to Lot 7. For example, there was no evidence that the marina would have had fewer boat slips or moorings or the boatyard would have had fewer racks if it was comprised only of former Lot 7. Further, Lot 7’s transition from seasonal residential property to a marina took place many years earlier and the owner of Lot 8 never complained. Consequently, the subsequent owners of the marina on Lots 6 and 7 relied on the acquiescence of the owner of Lot 8 to use the easement. In conclusion, the Appellate Division agreed that the owner of the consolidated Lots 6 and 7 could continue to use the easement. They could not, however, utilize the easement for the benefit of adjacent marinas that did not, at their core, use Lot 7.