In Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, the SJC considered the scope of the rights that the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank had under an easement that it held over the Outermost Inn property in Aquinnah owned by Hugh and Jeanne Taylor. The Taylors were represented by my colleague here at Rackemann, and fellow blogger, Gordon Orloff.
The Land Bank sought to change one of the few remaining bright-line legal rules in Massachusetts: an easement appurtenant to one parcel of land may not be used as access to abutting land not benefitted by the easement, even if both parcels of land are owned by the same person. An “appurtenant” easement is created for the benefit of a particular parcel of land and is a real estate interest that runs with the land benefited by it when that land is transferred. The SJC resisted the invitation to create a gray area that would have required fact-intensive litigation of whether the use of the easement to reach the non-appurtenant parcel would increase the burden on the owner of the land over which the easement ran. Instead, it kept in place the black-and-white rule prohibiting any access to a parcel that does not hold rights to use the easement.
The Land Bank owns four parcels of land in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. The three parcels closest to the Taylor property hold an appurtenant access easement over that property. The fourth parcel, known as Diem Lot 5, does not have rights in this easement. Nevertheless, the Land Bank sought to use the access easement over the Taylor property for a new loop trail for public use that crossed over all of the Land Bank parcels, including Diem Lot 5. The Land Bank wanted this public loop trail despite the fact that Diem Lot 5 has its own deeded access.
The Taylors filed an action in Land Court to prevent public use of the easement over the Taylor property to gain access to the Diem Lot 5. The Taylor’s claims rested in large part on a rule that originated in Massachusetts as early as 1838, and which was reiterated in Murphy v. Mart Realty of Brockton, Inc., 348 Mass. 675, 678-79 (1965). As summarized by the SJC, “the bright-line rule in Murphy … disallow[s] any use of an easement to benefit land to which the easement is not appurtenant.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank did not dispute that the Murphy rule prohibits the use of the easement appurtenant to its three parcels to reach Diem Lot 5. Instead, it asked the SJC to change the rule, or to at least create some exceptions that would allow public access to Diem Lot 5 over the easement. In refusing to do so, the SJC focused on the intent of the parties at the time the easement was created, which was not to provide access to Diem Lot 5.
The Land Bank had proposed that the Court inquire into whether a use benefitting the non-appurtenant land would increase the burden on the land over which an easement passes, or the so-called “servient” land. In upholding the Murphy rule, the Court paid careful attention to the effect that such a proposed rule would have on owners of servient land, emphasizing that assessing any additional burden on those owners “would require a longer process of litigation than would the bright-line rule, would lead to a less predictable outcome, and might not be affordable to owners of small servient parcels who are litigating against defendants with the financial means to acquire and develop multiple parcels of land.” The SJC preferred “the bright-line rule articulated in Murphy” because it “provides owners of servient property with certainty regarding their possessory rights” in their land.