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Robinson v. Rea

A-1491-05T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS — Easement proceedings are equitable proceedings and an appellate court should not disturb a remedy fashioned by a lower court absent a clear abuse of discretion.

A parcel of property was subdivided to produce three separate lots: 24; 24.06; and 48. The owner of lot 48 accessed his property, which had, in the past, primarily been used for hunting, by crossing through lot 24. The former owner of lot 24 allowed the property owner access across the lot, but no formal easement was ever recorded.

Subsequently, lot 24 was sold and the new owner continued to allow the property owner to access lot 48. However, he advised the property owner that he enjoyed no easement over lot 24. At this time, the owner of lot 48 made several attempts to get the municipality to grant his an easement. All proved unsuccessful. The new owner of his lot 24 then subdivided his lot into two approximately equal sized lots. This created lot 24.06. The owner of lot 48 then brought suit seeking an easement by necessity via a proposed driveway which would bisect lot 24.06.

The lower court granted the owner of lot 48 a temporary easement by necessity around the perimeter of lot 24.06. It reasoned that public policy discourages landlocked property, and that the owner of lot 48 was entitled to a means of accessing his property. However, the lower court also observed that “the use of an easement must be ... reasonable and as little burdensome to the servient estate as nature and object of it will permit.” It held that granting the easement sought by the owner of lot 24, which would bisect lot 24.06 via a driveway, and would unreasonably interfere with the use and enjoyment of the servient estate.

The lower court next examined the common law requirements for an easement by necessity. It found that the first requirement – former unity of ownership and subsequent severance of title rendering one of the properties landlocked – was satisfied. However, the lower court then focused upon the requirement of absolute necessity, holding that such necessity had not yet been demonstrated because the property owner had not yet demonstrated that the lot was suitable for development. Absent such a demonstration, no absolute necessity existed. The lower court then granted the owner of lot 48 a temporary easement, rather than a permanent easement, so that the owner of lot 48 could perform the required tests and evaluations to prove to the lower court that the property could be developed. In effect, the lower court would only grant a permanent easement upon a showing by the owner of lot 48 that his property could be developed. That property owner moved for reconsideration and upon denial of that motion appealed, his principal argument being that the lower court wrongly determined the location of the easement, and should have granted him an easement directly through lot 24.06, rather than around its perimeter.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the ruling of the lower court, holding that easement proceedings are “equitable proceedings,” and that an appellate court will not disturb the remedy fashioned by a lower court absent a “clear abuse of discretion.” The Court found that no such abuse of discretion had occurred because the lower court reasonably concluded that bisecting lot 24.06 with a driveway would unreasonably interfere with the use and enjoyment of that parcel, and that the alternate location around the perimeter ultimately struck the appropriate equitable balance. The Court also found no error in the lower court’s denial of the motion for reconsideration by the owner of lot 48, holding that rulings on such motions are within the discretion of the lower court, and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. The Court found no such abuse of discretion, especially considering that the expert for lot 48 had ample chance to testify regarding the alleged impracticability of the perimeter easement.

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