2013 Maryland Court of Appeals Decision on Implied Easements

Ryan Perna, a current student at the University of Baltimore School of Law and editor of its Journal of Land and Development, provided the summary below of a Court of Appeals decision on implied easements:

 

It is a well-established doctrine of law that an easement arises by necessity when an owner severs a landlocked portion of his/her property by conveying such parcel to another.  However, when a property owner’s land is touched by a driveway that cuts through a neighbor’s property and is shown on  the subdivision plat but is not necessary for direct access to a public road, does a right exist?

Last spring, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided Lindsay v. Annapolis Roads Property Owners Ass’n, 431 Md. 274, a case involving a disputed easement. The Court applied several rules in connection with implied easements:

  • Implied easements by reference to a plat are created where a deed contains a reference to a plat that shows a right of way.
  • A strip of land depicted on a plat that could not be regarded reasonably as anything but a shared driveway or street intended for joint use is sufficient for the purpose of conveying an implied easement by plat reference, even in the absence of a legend expressly dedicating the strip for common use.
  • However, purported grants of implied easements are construed strictly, and thus, an easement is not implied where a deed merely refers to terms defined on a plat, without a reference to the makers of the plat, the location of the plat’s recordation, or the plat itself.  Such references do not imply an intention on the part of the grantor to convey rights to an easement.

In dispute in this case was whether an easement ran across the Petitioner’s property over a strip of land depicted on a 1928 plat as providing a shared driveway between four lots.  The plat showed four lots (18, 19, 20, and 21) and an abutting strip of land approximately ten feet in width and one hundred-fifteen feet in length running between Lots 19 and 20 and partially between Lots 18 and 21 (“the Strip”).  As depicted on the plat, Lots 18 and 21 would not have access to a road, except by use of the Strip.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower courts that the Strip was originally a part of the lots surrounding it, and when each lot was conveyed, the portion of the Strip abutting that lot was also conveyed.

In 1928, all of the lots were owned by the Annapolis Roads Company (“ARC”).  ARC first conveyed Lots 18 and 19 (by separate deeds and to separate owners) in 1928.  The deed by which ARC conveyed Lot 18 in 1928 referred to a plat that showed the Strip, and the Court recognized that this reference was sufficient to establish an easement implied by plat reference across the Strip where it abutted Lots 19, 20 and 21 for the benefit of Lot 18 because the plat clearly indicated a drive intended for joint use. In 1928, Lot 18 was re-conveyed to ARC.  At that time, ARC still owned 20 and 21, and the Court regarded this re-conveyance of Lot 18 as extinguishing, by merger of the dominant and servient estates, an easement vested in Lot 18 across the Strip where it abutted Lots 20 and 21.  However, Lot 18 maintained its easement rights across the Strip where it abutted Lot 19.

In 1931, ARC conveyed Lot 18 again, this time by a deed that made no mention of the plat.  Accordingly, an easement was never recreated across the portions of the Strip abutting Lots 20 and 21.  The Court reasoned that “to re-establish an easement extinguished by merger, the grantor must recreate the easement as if for the first time.”  Unless the grantor clearly intends to establish an easement, an easement will not be implied.

Lot 19 was eventually conveyed to the Petitioners and grew to include a triangular area cut out of Lot 18 and the portions of the Strip abutting Lots 18, 20 and 21.  As a result, ownership in the Strip was consolidated in Lot 19.  The remainder of Lot 18 was merged with Lots 15, 16 and 17, providing access to the road from Lot 18 across the other lots.  Ownership in Lots 20 and 21 was likewise consolidated, providing access to the road from Lot 21.  Therefore, Lots 18 and 21 ceased to rely on the Strip for access to the road.

The Petitioners failed to maintain a key argument for their appeal that the easement appurtenant to Lot 18 across the 5’-wide portion of the Strip abutting Lot 19 was extinguished when Lot 18 was merged with Lots 15, 16, and 17, causing Lot 18 to no longer have any legal significance.  As a result, the strange conclusion of this case was that Lot 18 maintained an easement across the 5’-wide portion of the Strip abutting Lot 19 but not in any other portion of the Strip.  However, this easement was for the benefit of Lot 18 only under the principle that an easement cannot be extended to accommodate land that the owner of the dominant estate did not own at the time the easement was granted.  Accordingly, the owner of Lot 18 was not permitted to use the Strip to the extent it benefitted improvements constructed on Lots 15, 16 or 17.

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