Earlier this month the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued an important decision in the case of Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC.  Mr. Martin holds an easement over the land of the defendant, Simmons.  Simmons had blocked part of Martin’s easement.

Land in Massachusetts can be registered or unregistered.  Registered land has some special protections not afforded to unregistered land (also referred to as “recorded land”).  For example, the boundaries of registered land must initially be approved by the Land Court and, once registered, the land is protected against adverse possession prescriptive easements.

Under Massachusetts case law as applied to recorded land, unless expressly prohibited by the terms of an easement, the owner of the land over which the easement runs (called the “servient estate”) is entitled, at his own expense, to make reasonable changes in the location or dimensions of the easement to permit normal use or development of the servient estate, but only if those changes don’t (a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the owner of the easement in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created. See the SJC’s landmark 2004 decision in M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer.

The question in Martin was whether this same principle applied to registered land.  The answer was a resounding “yes.”

The Court noted that, although M.P.M. Builders addressed recorded, not registered land, “nothing in the analysis distinguished between registered and recorded land, nor have our prior decisions that concern modifications to an easement.”  The SJC saw “nothing in the land registration act, G.L. c. 185, to support a different understanding of the law of easements concerning registered land as opposed to recorded land.” It roundly rejected the Appeals Court’s ruling that, since the dimensions of all easements indicated on the registration plan of land “are immutable . . . Martin has a right of access over the full width of” the disputed way.

The court noted that nothing in the easement itself prohibited a change in its location and that, “given Martin’s current use of his property, the encroachments into . . . [the easement] do not lessen its utility for passage by vehicles much larger than any in existence when the way was created, do not increase the burden on Martin in his use of the way, and do not frustrate the purpose of travel to Martin’s lot.”  Therefore, the court concluded, “the width of the easement properly may be reduced as the defendant has done here, since the plaintiff does not dispute that at all times he has been able to use the remaining unobstructed portion of the easement for the purpose of travel to and from his parcel.”

As the SJC addresses other registered land cases, we’ll learn whether Martin represents a trend to limit the advantages of registered land, or merely reflects the court’s concern that easements not unduly burden the development of land regardless of its registered or unregistered status.