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Emmetts v. Durso

2005 WL 1667388 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

RIGHTS OF WAY—Where the meaning of an easement is plain as derived from the granting language read as an entirety and in light of the surrounding circumstances, that language will control without resort to artificial rules of construction.

A dispute arose over a strip of land measuring about 15 feet across and leading from a highway to a lake. An adjoining property owner “installed, constructed, and erected a floating dock” attached to the end of that strip where it met the lake. The neighbor had certain rights to the strip of land by virtue of a deed containing the following language: “The party of the first part also conveys to the party of the second part, his heirs and assigns, the right to use, in common with others, a right of way 15 feet in width and lying of the left, or easterly side of the first line of the above described tract, and extending along the first line of said tract to the lake and continuing to the public highway… .” The words “to the lake” were handwritten above the typed phrase “said tract” and initialed. Subsequent deeds incorporated the handwritten language into their typed portion. Further, the deed to the land, over which the right of way ran, contained a reservation stating that: “This conveyance is subject to the rights of other persons to use the lands aforedescribed in common with the grantees and others for ingress and egress from their residences” near the road to the waters of the lake. The Court believed that the unambiguous language of the reservation spelled out that the right of way was for ingress and egress and that the original deed spelled out no more than what was intended, i.e., that there was a right of way extending from the road to the lake.

The neighbors, however, argued that the right of way contained in the deed and the reservation in the grantor’s deed entitled them to use this strip of land for more than ingress and egress. They argued that they were entitled to build docks and to maintain and use a concrete patio beyond the 15 foot wide right of way. The Court rejected that idea, holding that the neighbor’s usage was “more in keeping with a fee simple owner than that of an easement holder.” It found no instruments indicating that “the original intention of the parties in granting the easement [across the 15 foot strip of land] connote[d] usage beyond that expressed in the language of the original deed which granted ‘a right of way 15 feet in width.’” On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s order that the dock be removed and added the following: “An easement is a ‘nonpossessory incorporeal’ interest in another’s possessory estate in land, entitling the holder of the easement to make some use of the other’s property. ... The extent of the easement created by a conveyance is fixed by the conveyance. ... An easement may be created for a fixed term and for the accomplishment of a specific purpose.” Further, according to the Court, “[t]he polestar of contract construction is to discover the intention of the parties as revealed by the language used by them. ... In making that determination, courts first determine if the language of an easement was ‘plain and unambiguous in the light of the circumstances surrounding its execution.’ ... [W]here the meaning of the easement ‘is plain, as derived from the language read as an entirety and in light of the surrounding circumstances,’ that language ‘will control without resort to artificial rules of construction.’” Here, the Court felt that the deeds in the neighbor’s “chain of title specifically limited his right of way to a fifteen-foot strip, and did not refer to either a beach area or [the adjacent neighbor’s land], as a whole.” Consequently, the Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

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