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Reed v. Billybob Partners

A-0059-08T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS — Where an easement is not one of necessity, but is the result of an express grant in a deed, continuing necessity of access is not a factor in determining the easement’s validity.

A deed recited that the conveyed property was subject to an access easement in favor of an adjoining property owner. Absent the easement, the adjoining property would have been landlocked. The deed did not define the easement’s scope or provide for sharing the easement’s maintenance costs. At the time of the deed, the easement was an unimproved pathway. The deed to the adjoining lot also recited the access easement for that parcel’s benefit and had a maintenance cost sharing provision. The owner of the benefitted parcel wished to build a one-family home. Bringing the access easement into compliance with municipal code (to obtain requisite permits) required paving the easement on the burdened owner’s parcel. The owner of the burdened parcel sued, contending that paving the easement area was an unintended and prohibited change in the nature and use of the easement. It believed the change would intensify the use of the easement and adversely affect their privacy and quiet.

The lower court ruled that the express easement gave the owner of the benefitted parcel the right to pave the unimproved road within the access easement area according to the municipality’s specifications, if done in the least intrusive manner. It also held that the owner of the benefitted parcel was responsible for the cost of the paving, but that both parties had to share maintenance costs. The owner of the burdened parcel appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part. It ruled that it was not material whether the benefitted parcel was landlocked because the easement was not one of necessity. Since the easement was an express grant through a deed, necessity of access was not a factor in determining the easement’s validity. The Court looked to the grant language because if the grant’s meaning has been plain, there would be no need to use any rules of construction. Here, the Court found there was nothing in the easement grant that showed that the grantor intended for the easement to remain in its original condition. Therefore, it looked to the surrounding circumstances to ascertain intent. Here, the adjoining lot was originally zoned for residential use. The Court noted that a paved surface should have been contemplated when the easement was granted. Further, because the municipality required a paved driveway, it was not possible to proceed in a less intrusive manner. The Court also found that paving would not be an exaggerated increase in use. Therefore, it affirmed the lower court’s ruling permitting the road to be paved. On the other hand, it reversed the lower court’s cost sharing determination because the deed held by the owner of the burdened parcel was silent on cost sharing. Only the deed held by the benefitted owner contained language referring to cost sharing. In the absence of language making the burdened estate responsible to contribute to maintenance and repair costs, the Court refused to compel the burdened parcel to make such payment. It concluded that benefitted parcel had to pay these costs unless the owner of the burdened parcel agreed to contribute.

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