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Samaroo v. Seabron

A-4086-01T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS—Where an easement agreement is found to be ambiguous, a court can require an evidentiary determination of intent in order to rule on the easement’s scope.

In 1972, a driveway encroachment problem was resolved by the execution of an easement agreement. For consideration of one dollar paid each to the other, the owners of adjacent properties “agreed to grant each other an easement for driveway purposes along said adjoining lot line, upon the terms and conditions hereinafter set forth.” The terms permitted each party to have a particular 45 foot long easement “as and for driveway purposes, and for ingress and egress to the rear of both properties.” The agreement did not “itself specify the quantum of land contributed by each of the parties,” but the grant of rights was expressed in reciprocal terms, apparently identical for each party. Two days after the easement was recorded, one property was conveyed. Several months later, the property was conveyed again. The final conveyance relied on a survey accompanied by the intermediate owner’s survey affidavit. That affidavit attested that no change had been made and that there were no adjoining driveways but for an handwritten, penned exception reading: “joint driveway.” For about 22 years, one party effectively had the exclusive use of the driveway which it eventually paved and then repaved several times. Although residents of the other property owned vehicles, “they never used the driveway for vehicular access to the rear, which had no garage and was unpaved.” Apparently, they parked their cars in a municipal lot a block and a half from the property. A new property owner of the property that had never used the driveway “assumed when he read the easement agreement that it provided him with vehicular access to the rear of the property, which he intended to pave.” The driveway on the other side of his house was insufficient in width for vehicular access.

The lower court construed the easement agreement and “was satisfied that there was sufficient ambiguity in its terms to require an evidentiary determination of intent.” Relying on the facts presented, it then “concluded that despite such of its language as might be otherwise interpreted, [the] intent [of the easement agreement] was not the creation of a common driveway.” The lower court based it’s a finding on the ambiguity of the length limitation in the easement. The Appellate Division agreed that since that the depth of the common boundary line was more than 100 feet longer than the specified easement length, “a question could not but have been raised as to the intention of the parties imposing that specific limitation.” In fact, the 45 foot length expressed in the easement agreement served to solve the problem faced by the owner of one of the houses when it discovered that its own driveway encroached the other house’s property by about one and one-half feet.

The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court. It acknowledged that “but for the 45 foot limitation in the easement agreement, its creation of a common driveway with equal and reciprocal rights to and on burdens on both tenements, each at the same time dominant and servient, would have been clear and unambiguous.” Further, it recognized that the plain language of the easement agreement “would have been controlling despite any withheld or unexpressed intentions of the parties.” Here, however, the Court believed that the “45-foot length limitation and the imposition of the entire maintenance expense on [one property owner and not the other] was sufficient to alert a person in interest of an ambiguity requiring further investigation.”

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