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Bubis v. Kassin

353 N.J. Super. 415, 803 A.2d 146 (App. Div. 2002)

EASEMENTS— An easement can be temporarily relocated on equitable grounds but need not be permanently extinguished if, once the equitable basis for the relocation no longer exists, the original easement should be reinstated.

In an earlier visit to the Appellate Division, that Court concluded that various individual owners of inland lots had implied private easements across a former street that ran through the middle of an owner’s property. The easement gave access to the beach and ocean. Then, the matter was remanded. On remand, the lower court resolved the dispute in favor of the landowner over whose property the easement was claimed. Before trial, the landowner made an offer of judgment to install a pedestrian gate at the very end of its property. The complaining neighbors rejected that offer. At trial, the Court determined that if the easement were moved to the edge of the encumbered landowner’s property, the longest distance a neighbor would have to walk to get access the beach was 300 feet. Therefore, the Court, balancing equities, determined that it would be equitable to move the easement to the extreme edge of the encumbered property from the point at which it had originally been designated. The decision held that “[t]he reopening of [the former street] over [the encumbered] property would have the material, substantial and devastating impact of dividing the property in half and drastically limiting the beneficial use of the property by [its owners], their children, family and friends, and doubtlessly have a negative impact on the value of the property and its marketability… .” On the other hand, comparison of the inconvenience to the complaining neighbors “of an additional short walk to access the beach if [the old street] remained closed with the [encumbered property owner’s] harm ... if a gate at [the old street] were to be reopened clearly demonstrate[d] that the relief which [the neighbors sought] must be refused. ... This court is quite satisfied that this is a situation where the granting of the maximum relief sought by plaintiff would lead to an inequitable decree… . [D]espite the fact that they have an established implied easement in the location in question, as the Appellate Division has determined, they were also required to demonstrate their hardship, if equitable relief is not awarded, is not merely a matter of inconvenience but of sufficient magnitude as to call for the application of the strong arm of the court of equity. This [the neighbors] have failed to do.” In essence, the lower court concluded that the neighbor’s interest in the access easement “could be adequately vindicated by relocation of the easement to the southern boundary of the [encumbered] property, which [was] approximately 300 feet from [its original location].” The matter then returned to the Appellate Division which upheld the lower court’s decision. In doing so, it pointed out that its remand was to allow the lower court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to the relief to be granted. “This order was broad and open-ended. We did not just remand for the entry of a judgment in plaintiff’s favor enforcing the implied easements.” A court of equity “ordinarily has broad discretion in determining whether to grant injunctive relief.” In doing so, it is required to consider the relative hardships to the parties and other equitable circumstances. Consequently, it was clear that the lower court had the authority to withhold the equitable relief sought by the neighbors. Once such a decision is made, the Appellate Division is limited to determining whether the lower court abused its discretion. Here, it concurred with the lower court’s findings that enforcement of the easement would have a severe adverse affect on the encumbered land, and that this adverse affect substantially outweighed the inconvenience to the neighbors in being required to walk an additional distance to the substitute easement. On the other hand, the Appellate Division did not believe that this rationale supported extinguishment of the easement. In the Court’s view, the hardship would continue to exist only so long as the encumbered property was held by a single owner. “If the property is subdivided, it may be appropriate to enforce the easement along [the originally designated street] at that time.” The Appellate Division recognized that the lower court’s judgment did not expressly state that the easement had been extinguished, “but the use of the term ‘relocate’ could be construed to have that effect.” Therefore, it remanded the matter for entry of an amended judgment to state that the denial of the injunction enforcing the easement across the abandoned street did not extinguish the easement.

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