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Taylor v. Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 11, 2016

HUGH C. TAYLOR, trustee, [1] & others [2]

          Heard: March 8, 2016.

         A motion for summary judgment was heard by Alexander H. Sands, III, J., and the remaining issues were also heard by him.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Diane C. Tillotson for the defendant. Gordon M. Orloff for the plaintiffs.

          Jeffrey T. Angley & Nicholas P. Shapiro, for Roma III, Ltd., amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Greg D. Peterson, Mark S. Furman, & Matthew S. Furman, for Sarah A. Kent, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ. [3]

          LENK, J.

         The defendant, Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission, owns and manages a nature preserve on the western edge of Martha's Vineyard. The preserve is comprised of various parcels of land that the defendant purchased in the 1990s. In 2010, the defendant created a hiking trail through the preserve, which it planned to open to the public. The trail began on a main road, crossed over the grounds of an inn owned by the plaintiffs via a forty-foot wide easement, proceeded from there across three parcels of the defendant's land for whose benefit the easement was created, and then entered a fourth parcel, also owned by the defendant, that was not intended to benefit from the easement. The plaintiffs filed an action in the Land Court to prevent the defendant from using the easement as part of the hiking trail. They argued, among other things, that it was improper, pursuant to Murphy v. Mart Realty of Brockton, Inc., 348 Mass. 675 (1965), for the trail to cross over the easement and then continue onto the fourth parcel, given that the easement was not intended to serve that parcel. On this basis, a judge of the Land Court granted partial summary judgment for the plaintiffs. Following a bench trial, at which certain remaining issues were resolved in the defendant's favor, the defendant appealed from the grant of partial summary judgment, and we allowed its application for direct appellate review.[4]

         The defendant contends that the bright-line rule in Murphy, disallowing any use of an easement to benefit land to which the easement is not appurtenant, [5] is overly rigid. The defendant suggests that, instead, this court should adopt a fact-intensive inquiry requiring consideration whether the use of a particular easement to benefit other parcels would increase unfairly the burden on the easement. We conclude that the benefits of preserving the long-standing, bright-line rule set forth in Murphy outweigh any costs associated with its rigidity, and therefore decline to adopt the defendant's suggestion. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Land Court.

         1. Background.

         Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission "was established in 1985 by a special act of the Legislature . . . for the purpose of acquiring land for environmental protection, conservation, and managed public use." It owns and manages, among other properties, the Aquinnah Headlands Preserve, a nature preserve on the western edge of Martha's Vineyard located atop the Gay Head Cliffs. The preserve contains a series of hiking trails, which are open to the public annually during the tourism off-season, from September 15 through June 15.

         In the early 1990s, the defendant assembled what is now the preserve by purchasing a series of parcels on the Gay Head Cliffs. Four of these parcels are relevant here. From south to north, these adjacent parcels are referenced by the parties as Ginnochio Lot l, [6] Vanderhoop Parcel, Ginnochio Lot 2, and Diem Lot 5.[7] None of the four parcels abuts the nearest public way, Lighthouse Road, which runs to the south of the properties. A separate parcel, however, located to the southeast of the defendant's properties, connects Ginnochio Lot 1 to Lighthouse Road. That parcel, owned by the plaintiffs, is registered land known as the Inn Property. It contains a small hotel with seven guest rooms that is open only during the tourism season, approximately from mid-May through Columbus Day weekend.

         The defendant's parcels benefit from two easements that burden the Inn Property. Those easements, which were created before the defendant purchased the parcels that now comprise the preserve, provide access to and from Lighthouse Road. Neither of the easements is appurtenant to all four of the parcels. The first easement, a forty-foot wide road referred to in the Land Court proceedings and by the parties here as the Disputed Way, is appurtenant to and serves the three southern parcels (Ginnochio Lot 1, Vanderhoop Parcel, and Ginnochio Lot 2). The other easement, called Twenty-Foot Way, is appurtenant to and serves Diem Lot 5, the northernmost property.[8]

         In May, 2010, the defendant received approval from various government agencies to implement a "Management Plan"[9] that called for creating a hiking trail on the preserve. The proposed trail would incorporate Disputed Way and Twenty Foot Way in a single loop. The trail would extend along the full length of Disputed Way, "begin[ning] at Lighthouse Road, proceed[ing] northwesterly over [the Inn] Property, then over Ginnochio Lot 1, . . . and the Vanderhoop Parcel, " and "terminating on Ginnochio Lot 2." From there, the trail would run north into Diem Lot 5, and ultimately ...

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