The Appeals Court issued an interesting case last week concerning the overburdening of an easement. The case concerned the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) (better known as “four wheelers” by this Vermonter!) on a beach in Gloucester.
This case discusses the scope of easements and what is (and is not) allowed for such property rights.
The full decision, Mazzola v. O’Brien, is included below. This case also concerns a discussion of G. L. c. 90B, § 26(e), which is a law about using ATVs on privately-owned property, which I won’t discuss in this blog post.
What is an Easement?
An easement, simply put, is the right to use another person’s property. An easement is a nonpossessory right to use property: the easement holder can use the property but does not own it.
Easements are used in a wide array of circumstances. This particular case concerned an easement that provided access to a beach, which is common for waterfront properties in Massachusetts (such as Cape Cod).
Easements can be created expressly, where one purposely intends to give another a right to use their property. Easements can also be created in other circumstances, such as through years of continuous, uninterrupted use (known as an easement by prescription).
In this case, the easement provided the defendant with a means of accessing a beach through the claimant’s property, on a portion of the property that was fifteen feet wide, 450 feet long, and consisted of a gravel path and sand dunes. The question for the court was whether the holder of this easement was allowed to use ATVs on this property to access the beach.
Overburdening an Easement: What to Know
The owner of this property brought a lawsuit against the easement holder, alleging that the easement holder was overburdening the easement. This is a legal claim alleging that the party with the easement was using it beyond its intended purpose.
When an overburdening of an easement occurs, a court has the power to stop excessive use, and only allow the easement to be used for its intended purpose. Here, the property owner was attempting to stop the easement holder from using an ATV on the easement, and argued that only pedestrian traffic was allowed on his property.
In deciding this case, the Appeals Court noted the following:
Where nothing in the easement language or the objective circumstances supports an express limitation, the easement “may be used for such purposes as are reasonably necessary to the full enjoyment of the premises to which the right of way is appurtenant” (citation omitted . . . Especially where the easement is 450 feet long, a distance that is difficult or impossible for some to walk, using ATVs to transport people and equipment to the beach is a reasonably necessary use.
The standard of determining whether such uses of an easement are “reasonably necessary to the full enjoyment of the premises” depends, of course, on the circumstances of each case.
The key takeaway of this case is that, without any express limitations, the scope of an easement can become a question of fact for a court to decide. Here, had the easement been written to explicitly ban the use of ATVs on the property, there would be little dispute over whether an overburdening of the easement occurred.
For this reason, extra care should always be given when preparing any type of easement, to avoid any uncertainty down the road.
Nonetheless, this case reaffirms that limits do exist on the use of an easement. If an easement holder is using an easement beyond its intended purpose, relief is available from the courts.
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