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Debenedette v. Delodzia

A-2768-08T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS — A deeded easement may describe a wider area than the parties intend to utilize as a roadway and extrinsic evidence in that regard is admissible to determine the intent of the parties who originally created the easement.

A single lot was subdivided into two lots. For the back lot, the owner’s only means of vehicular access to public roads was by way of a dirt-and-gravel rural lane running through the front lot. The rural lane ranged in width from ten to twelve feet, with grassy shoulders several feet wide flanking the lane. The predecessors in title for both lots entered into a perpetual easement agreement granting a “fifty-foot wide right-of-way” along the rural lane to the public road for the mutual benefit of both parties. The current owners verbally agreed that vegetation must periodically be cut back or removed to allow unobstructed access to vehicles traveling along the lane. Disputes arose when the owner of the back lot began to cut some bushes to the stump, removed rocks from the roadbed, and killed vegetation with herbicide on the front lot. The servient tenants claimed the dominant tenant’s maintenance efforts were excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable and had caused the rural lane to lose its scenic beauty and increasing runoff erosion. They believed these actions materially altered their property. One of the original dominant tenants stated in an affidavit that it was “never contemplated or agreed that they would ever utilize any width footage greater than what was necessary for a car to travel down the lane.” Moreover, the former dominant tenant stated that during the nearly three decades she had resided on the property, the owners of both lots performed “minimum maintenance” on the rural lane, “only trimming back the growth as necessary, so as to afford car access to the rear of the property.” She also said that the foliage along the lane “was always of great importance both for its scenic beauty and the privacy it provided.” The owners of the front lot sued the owners of the back lot seeking to enjoin the owners of the back lot from performing any maintenance on the rural lane.

The lower court initially issued an order preserving the status quo. It then granted declaratory and injunctive relief, permanently enjoining the owner of the back lot from performing any maintenance work that would widen or materially alter the rural lane, or otherwise damage, reconfigure or materially alter the front lot’s right-of-way. The order explicitly allowed for reasonably necessary maintenance, including the trimming and even stumping of trees. The lower court concluded that the grant language in the easement agreement between the parties predecessor’s was ambiguous, but that, read in light of the surrounding circumstances, permitted the owners of the back lot a right-of-way sufficient for ingress and egress of one vehicle at a time along the existing lane. It considered the affidavit of the former dominant tenant as being “the only human source of evidence *** [from one] who was present at the time of the grant,” to discern the intent of the parties. The lower court also found the facts demonstrated that the owner of the back lot’s maintenance activities materially and unreasonably altered the rural lane beyond what was necessary to enjoy the easement. The owner of the back lot appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed for substantially the reasons stated by the lower court. In agreeing with the lower court, it found the grant language to be ambiguous as “the fifty-foot width specified therein may reasonably describe the space intended to be occupied by an intended roadway or simply the space through which a right-of-way is permitted as reasonably necessary – here, along an existing lane substantially narrower than the easement itself.” The Court also agreed that the affidavit from the predecessor in title clarified that the parties intended the easement agreement to allow ingress and egress along the rural lane as it then existed, sufficient to accommodate a single vehicle and with foliage to provide aesthetic appeal and some measure of privacy. In addition, the Court found her description of the parties’ subsequent limited maintenance practices over thirty years to be consistent with that intent, as was the grant language indicating that the easement was for the mutual benefit of the owners of both properties. It rejected the argument that the lower court’s consideration of the affidavit was inappropriate, given the ambiguity of the grant agreement and the affiant’s status as a party to that agreement. It also noted that the appellants did not challenge the credibility of the affiant.

Finally, the Court held that although the expert for the owner of the back lot may have demonstrated that the dominant tenant’s chosen methods of maintenance were reasonable, nothing in the record indicated that the methods were reasonably necessary to his use and enjoyment of the rural lane.

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