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Rodano v. Craig

A-0863-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS — Where an easement agreement is not clear on its face, a court, using its equitable powers, may define the scope of the easement, but not extend the scope beyond that set forth in the written grant.

Three lots along a peninsula were once owned by the same landowner who lived in a house on the lot at the tip of the peninsula. He accessed it by way of an original crushed stone driveway extending to the nearest public street. The owners of the lot at the base of the peninsula had acquired their title from the original owner. Their agreement of sale required them to create a non-exclusive easement of ingress and egress across their lot to allow access to the two other lots.

A survey and the documents between the parties showed that the intended easement area ran parallel to the existing stone driveway, between that driveway and the water’s edge. A utility easement with utility wires, in favor of an electric company, ran through the proposed new easement area. An addendum to the agreement of sale made it a condition of settlement, and as partial consideration of the transaction, that the new lot owner deliver, for recording, this easement for vehicular and pedestrian use. The new owner had to keep the easement unobstructed at all times. The easement would run for the benefit of the original landowner, his heirs, successors, and assigns as to the other two lots. Because of the change of easement location, the parties intended to eliminate the gravel driveway. The one owner initiated an intention with the state to build a bulkhead along the bay side of his property, but discontinued his efforts because of the need for variances.

Later, the original owner sold his two remaining lots and the new homeowners used the gravel driveway for transit. The owner of the land subject to the easement blocked the driveway and generally obstructed the easement area down to the water. Litigation began.

The lower court concluded the landowner at the tip of the peninsula was contractually obligated to provide a useable passageway for the other parties to access their properties. It noted the easement area had suffered from natural deterioration and ordered the host owner to create a fifteen foot passageway to allow for pedestrian and vehicular access to the other two properties. The court also ordered that particular owner to construct a retention barrier to the bay only as to his lot.

In the appeal that followed, the Appellate Division affirmed the orders. The Court interpreted the original contract documents to say that the owner at the tip of the peninsula had to grant easement rights and also create a physical manifestation of the easement. It held the lower court was correct in finding the owner had to create a path across the properties to allow access to the other lots. The Court also disagreed with the argument that the seller of the lot was obligated to construct the easement just because the contract directed him to clean the location where the easement would be located. The “clean and level” language in the original sales agreement was in the addendum and this did not survive closing. The Court also found the lower court justifiably ordered each lot owner to pay for its pro-rata share of cost of the retention wall to allow for the necessary access to the lots. The lot owner at the tip of the peninsula was only ordered to pay for the cost of the retention wall proportional to its frontage.

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