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Easement Dimensions Are Not Necessarily Set in Stone

In a recent decision handed down in January 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court (the "SJC") has expanded on its well-known holding in M.P.M Builders, LLC v. Dwyer, 442 Mass. 87 (2004), to decide that an owner of registered land burdened by an easement can modify the dimensions of the way over his land "so long as the purposes for which the easement was created are not frustrated, and the utility of the easement is not lessened."

By way of background, in M.P.M. Builders, the Court held in 2004 that the owner of recorded land burdened by an easement could move the location of the easement so long as the change did not frustrate the purpose or utility of the easement.

The SJC's recent decision, Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC, 467 Mass. 1 (2014), involved whether the dimensions (but not the location) of an easement could be changed where the reduction in size of the easement area would not impair the easement-holder's use of the way, but also where the way was over registered land with dimensions established by the relevant Land Court plan.  

In affirming the Land Court's judgment that the dimensions of the easement could be altered, the SJC made the following bold statement, which may have come as a surprise to some members of the bar:  "We conclude there is no meaningful distinction for purposes of such an analysis between an easement on recorded land and an easement on registered land held pursuant to a Land Court certificate of title."  Martin, 467 Mass. at 2.  

In holding that the servient landowner was entitled to alter the way, however, the SJC noted that:  "Of course, parties may, in the language they employ to create an easement, prohibit any alteration in its dimensions, grade, or location, or provide explicitly that the easement is to remain in a fixed location or retain a fixed dimension."  Id. at 15.  In Martin, the certificate of title did not contain any such language, and merely referenced the deed reserving the easement as shown on the plan.  Id. at 16.

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