Appeals Court Confirms Neighbors' Easement Grants Right To Use of Beach in Hingham Harbor

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In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a Land Court decision holding that plaintiffs hold easement rights to access and use a beach in Hingham Harbor close to the parties' homes. Kane v. Martel, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 1130, at *1 (2018). Litigation between the neighbors over beach rights had been ongoing for more than a decade when the Appeals Court rendered its decision on March 5, 2018, a fact representative of the often bitter and protracted nature of disputes over beach access between neighbors living on the water in Cape Cod and other Massachusetts vacation destinations.

An appurtenant easement is a right vested in the owner of one piece of land to use a portion of land owned by another person. An appurtenant easement is attached to and benefits the so-called "dominant estate," and benefits subsequent possessors of that piece of property, and continues to affect the ownership rights of subsequent owners of the so-called "servient estate." Id. at *2.

In Kane v. Martel, a May 1929 deed from the predecessor owners of the defendants' land explicitly granted easement rights to the predecessor owners of the plaintiffs' land, granting recreational use of the beach and shore. Id. The Appeals Court explained: "[g]iven that it would be inconsistent with the intention of the grantor to provide for the use of the beach while denying the necessary access to do so, it is well-established that the conveyance must include access rights through an implied easement." Id.

The defendants pointed to evidence that they traced ownership of their property to deeds given prior to May 1929 from the same grantor that granted easement rights to the plaintiffs' predecessor owners. The Appeals Court held that fact to be irrelevant, because (a) appurtenant easements are not required to be recorded in a grantees' title; and (b) "[o]nce the appurtenant property is identified, '[a]n easement is to be interpreted as available for use by the whole of the dominant tenement existing at the time of its creation.'" Id. at *2-3 (internal citations omitted).

Kane v. Martel is representative of the durability of easement rights under the law. It is extremely difficult to invalidate express and implied easements that have been established for decades. Prospective buyers of waterfront property need to conduct a careful title search and investigation of the rights to beach access for owners of the property in question, as well as for neighbors, before making what is inevitably a substantial investment to purchase such a piece of real estate.

Fitch Law Partners will continue to monitor developments in this area of the law. For more information on Fitch Law Partners' real estate law practice, please visit our website.

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