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Pfrang v. Buonopane

A-2022-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS — The purposes set forth in an express easement limit the scope of the easement and a court should not relocate an express easement to facilitate a use not described in the granting document.

In a deed, the seller reserved a twelve-foot-wide easement over the conveyed land for access from the retained land to a lagoon to be built by the buyer. Soon after the conveyance and a similar one from that same buyer to a neighbor whose land abutted the proposed lagoon, the buyer constructed a 70 foot wide lagoon by dredging a channel. The neighbor did not need an easement to get to the lagoon. The municipality granted permission to dredge the lagoon, contingent on an agreement among all adjoining land owners to perpetually care for and maintain the adjacent bulkheads.

The buyer and the other owners in the area of the proposed lagoon entered into an agreement to cooperate in the dredging and to establish their respective rights in the lagoon after completion. Those rights covered use of the lagoon for boating, fishing, skating, hunting, and bathing. In addition, every signatory was authorized to build a dock from its land into the channel or lagoon. The original seller, who had reserved the easement, but who did not retain ownership of any of the land on which the lagoon was to be constructed, was not a party to this agreement.

The original seller then subdivided the rest of her property. A buyer acquired a subdivided lot that now bordered the access easement to the lagoon. It applied to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a coastal general permit and coastal wetlands permit to construct a fixed pier and ramp atop the easement running from its property line to the lagoon, and to build a floating dock extending into the lagoon. The original buyer filed objections with the DEP, primarily because the majority of the proposed construction would be on land it owned and because it had never consented to the building of a dock on the easement area. According to the original buyer, the access easement over its property did not authorize construction of structures or fixtures, nor did it permit storage of personal property. The original buyer also filed an action in the Chancery Division for an injunction against the purchaser of the subdivided lot pursuing its permit application before the DEP, a declaratory judgment regarding its original rights under the easement, and compensatory damages. The DEP issued the permits.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the lower court granted the parties’ motions in part and denied them in part. It entered an order denying the subdivision purchaser’s request to construct a pathway over the easement and a dock in the lagoon because there was no provision within the deed of easement allowing construction. However, the lower court exercised its inherent powers to effectuate a reasonable and equitable result, and ruled that the easement had to be moved so as to provide access to and use of the lagoon, on the portion of the property that abutted the lagoon, and where the bulkheads were already located.

Both parties were dissatisfied with this order and each filed motions addressed to its provisions. The original buyer sought to prevent the buyer of the subdivided lot from docking or mooring a boat at the bulkhead on the lagoon, and argued that relocation of the easement was unnecessary for reasonable use of the easement and of the lagoon. The owner of the subdivided lot sought an order permitting it to install a gate on the easement; clear vegetation from the easement; secure a ladder and a boat to the bulkhead; and install a small floating dock for access to its boat. In response, the lower court entered another order allowing the owner of the subdivided lot the right to moor a boat to the bulkhead and to use a ladder affixed to the face of the bulkhead for access to the moored boat. The original buyer appealed the lower court’s authorization of the boat mooring, the relocation of the easement, and the authorization given to the subdivided lot’s owner to keep the easement clear of vegetation.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that the original easement clearly was intended only to provide access to and from the proposed lagoon for the benefit of other lands still owned by the original seller. The deed did not reserve any property right to the land that was to be used for the proposed lagoon; it only reserved the right to use the lagoon. Thus, according to the Court, the lower court erred when it allowed the owner of the subdivided lot to attach a boat to bulkhead or affix a ladder. This use was akin to construction of a dock, which the lower court correctly recognized was reserved to the owner of the property. In reversing, the Court noted that had the original seller wanted to build a dock or other facility for mooring a boat of substantial size on the proposed lagoon, she could have included a provision creating such a right. Further, because the lower court’s order moving the easement seemed to be based, at least in part, on a right to moor a boat on the lagoon, the Court reversed the lower court’s order to move the easement. Finally, because the determination of whether vegetation removal is incident to an easement, the Court remanded the question for a factual determination.

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