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Black River & Western Corporation v. Bucks County Water & Sewer Authority

HNT-L-367-10 (N.J. Law Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS; DEEDS — Where the easement language in a deed does not dictate a clear result in favor of any party, a hearing must be held to resolve factual issues such as the circumstances under which the initial grant was made.

A railroad was the successor in interest to a canal company. As such, it became the fee owner in the company’s canal. A question arose whether the language of an easement in a 1937 deed allowed the railroad to demand a license or lease from anyone who wanted to construct a sewer line on the property covered by the easement. A municipality had entered into an agreement to construct a sewer pipeline within the land covered by the rail carrier’s easement.

Three motions for summary judgment were pending. The railroad sought partial summary judgment to the effect that it held an exclusive perpetual easement with the right to control pipelines located within the property such that anyone wishing to construct a pipeline would have to obtain a lease, license, or easement subject to its approval. The State and its Department of Environmental Protection asked the Court to find that the railroad held a non-exclusive easement and could not require a lease or license for the installation of a sewer line. The municipality sought a judgment that the railroad did not have an exclusive easement and therefore, its complaint for damages related to construction of the sewer line had to be dismissed with prejudice.

The Court denied all three motions, finding that there were many open issues of fact. For summary judgment to be awarded in a matter involving the construction of a deed granting an easement, a party has to show that its interpretation of the subject easement was the correct interpretation as a matter of law. It looked at the intent of the grant and all the surrounding circumstances. The Court found that the easement language in the deed did not dictate a clear result in favor of any party. Some of the unresolved factual issues were the circumstances of the grant of the easement, whether the ambiguous language of the easement considered a sewer use as being consistent with a reasonably foreseeable railroad use, whether the challenged force line was a significant expansion of a prior permitted use, whether the proposed sewer use was truly inconsistent with the railroad use, and whether the railroad was estopped from claiming such a sewer use to be an interference with its rights. Therefore, the Court denied all the parties’ motions for summary judgment.

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