The Jersey Devil Is in the Details

January 2014Articles In the Zone

If you want to limit the use of an access easement benefiting an adjacent parcel in New Jersey, then you’d better spell it out. A very recent decision issued in New Jersey and approved for publication by the Appellate Division represents the state of the law on this issue and is important for developers and others, particularly in the context of subdivisions. The case is entitled Caribbean House, Inc. v. North Hudson Yacht Club, et al, decided and approved for publication on December 30, 2013.

Caribbean House operates a “co-op” on a tract of land which it owns in Edgewater, New Jersey. The property is bordered on the east by the Hudson River and on the west by River Road. In 1968, Caribbean House subdivided the parcel, retaining the western portion bordering River Road for itself and conveying the eastern portion bordering the Hudson River to North Hudson Yacht Club (Yacht Club). In connection with its conveyance, Caribbean House granted to Yacht Club a ten foot wide access easement across Caribbean House’s retained lands as a means of ingress and egress to and from River Road. Without the access easement, the Yacht Club land would have been landlocked.

For the ensuing forty years, Yacht Club used the easement without incident for the benefit of its members, their guests, mechanics, police and fire department personnel, boat haulers, waste haulers, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Sea Scouts. In 2010, Yacht Club agreed to allow a local restaurant, the River Palm Terrace (River Palm), to use its parking lot to park, by way of valet service utilizing the access easement, River Palm’s patrons’ cars. This arrangement was made as a courtesy to a Yacht Club member who owned the restaurant, without payment and without a lease.¹

Caribbean House objected to the arrangement as impermissible, exceeding the use for which the easement was granted. Yacht Club disagreed and continued to allow River Palm to use the easement and to park its patrons’ cars on Yacht Club’s property. Caribbean House filed suit and sought summary judgment contending that a dominant estate, in this case Yacht Club, may not allow a third party to use its easement without benefit to the dominant estate, in the absence of a possessory interest. Yacht Club countered that it was free to invite whomever it wished to use its property, which could be accessed only by way of the easement.

The lower court granted judgment to Caribbean House, finding that Yacht Club was without authority to grant permission to a third party to burden the easement with uses not serving or benefiting Yacht Club. The Appellate Division reversed the lower court, finding that the easement granted to Yacht Club by Caribbean House was unlimited, thus constituting a general way for all purposes to which the Yacht Club’s property might be devoted. Because the arrangement with River Palm did not constitute an impermissible use of Yacht Club’s property, and due to the nature of the easement, the upper Court found the arrangement to be within the scope of Yacht Club’s easement.

The Appellate Division described the easement at issue as an easement appurtenant: that is, one created when the owner of one piece of property (the servient estate) grants rights regarding that property to the owner of an adjacent property (the dominant estate). In accord, the extent of the rights conveyed rests on the intent of the parties as expressed in the language creating the easement, read as a whole and in light of the surrounding circumstances.

The easement granted in this case was one for ingress and egress, without express limitation or restriction. Citing precedent, the upper Court stated that such an easement is available as a general way for all purposes to which the dominant estate, in this case Yacht Club’s property, might be devoted, absent limitation placed on the extent of that use. The Appellate Division distinguished between those cases in which the owner of the dominant estate allows use of the easement to access property other than its own (such as to cross its lands to get to a beach), and those cases in which the owner of the dominant estate allows use of the easement to access only its own dominant, appurtenant estate. In the former cases, the owner of the dominant estate may not grant rights to a third party, unless provided for in the instrument by which the easement is created. In other words, unless the document provides otherwise, an appurtenant easement may not be used for the benefit of property other than the dominant estate. In the latter cases, and to the contrary, the owner of the dominant estate may grant rights to a third party without express enabling language, provided that the rights granted are solely to access the property of the dominant estate and for a purpose to which the dominant estate is properly put. In this case, that proper purpose was parking. Because the easement was used by River Palm to access only Yacht Club’s property, it could not be accurately characterized as being used for the benefit of lands other than those to which it was appurtenant.

In short, the Appellate Division found that the easement granted to Yacht Club by Caribbean House was unlimited, and thus constituted a general way for all purposes to which the Yacht Club’s property might be devoted. With this in mind, and particularly in situations in which subdivisions are created and access rights are conveyed, any limitations or restrictions on that access must be spelled out clearly and definitively.

View the entire issue of In the Zone (pdf)

¹Yacht Club and River Palm later entered into a lease, but the existence or not of a lease played no part in the upper Court’s decision.