The Twists & Turns of Driveway Easements

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An easement in real estate is a limited, non-possessory right to enter and use land owned by another for a specific purpose and obligates the landowner not to interfere with the uses authorized by the easement. At law, the land on which the easement exists is referred to as the “servient estate” while the land that enjoys the benefit of the easement is called the “dominant estate.” Probably the most well-known and common easement is the one given in nearly every deed of residential property to utility companies, such as electric, cable, and phone, to install and maintain service and equipment. Such easements, for example, allow the utility to enter onto private property to cut tree branches away from lines.

Driveway Easements in Massachusetts

The rule in Massachusetts is that the owner of the servient estate may make any and all beneficial uses of his property consistent with the easement, and the rights of the owner of the easement are protected notwithstanding changes made by the servient estate owner as long as the purpose for which the easement was originally granted is preserved. Such changes may not significantly lessen the utility of the easement, increase the burden on the use and enjoyment by the owner of the easement, or frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created.

Easements Between Neighbors

One kind of dispute that may often end up in court involves an easement between neighbors where a single driveway serves more than one lot. In one recent Massachusetts Land Court case, the owner of property subject to a driveway easement for the benefit of an adjoining lot unilaterally relocated, reconfigured and modified the driveway by narrowing the width, steepening the grade, realigning the relatively straight driveway into a circular one with a center fountain and retaining wall, and installing a narrow electronic entrance gate. Without consulting his neighbor and while construction was underway, the owner sought a declaratory judgment from the Land Court approving the easement alterations as reasonable. The neighboring landowner filed a counter-claim seeking the restoration of the driveway to its previous condition. Following a jury-waived trial and view of the property, the judge declared the changes unreasonable and entered judgment in favor of the easement holder finding that the alterations to the easement significantly lessened the utility of the driveway easement as originally contemplated, increased the burdens on the easement holder’s use and enjoyment of the easement, and frustrated the easement’s purpose of connecting the neighboring lot to another easement owned by a third party.

Ordering the removal of the gate and other structures and restoration of the original easement, the judge noted that when a servient lot owner wishes to make changes to an easement, “clearly the best course is for the owners to agree to alterations that would accommodate both parties’ use of their respective properties to the fullest extent possible” and barring such agreement “should obtain a declaratory judgment before making any alterations.” The case is currently on appeal.

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