All is Not Peaceful on Willow Lane on Shelter Island: Neighbors Litigate Scope of 1959 Right of Way

This was originally published on the SGR Blog.

Shelter Island (2010 pop. 2,392), a Town on the East End of Long Island, separated from the rest of Suffolk County by a body of water– and accessible only by ferry from Greenport (to the north) and North Haven (to the south)– is known for its bed and breakfast and boutique hotel charm and culture. But, as a recent case illustrates, the full-time residents can be as litigious as the mainlanders who visit the island.

Sharon and Brenda Grosbard and Abbey on Willow Lane, LLC own adjoining properties that were once part of a larger common parcel in Shelter Island. Abbey’s property borders the Grosbard’s property on the north and also borders a portion of it on the west. The Grosbard’s property is burdened by an express easement that benefits Abbey’s property. The easement was granted as part of a 1959 property subdivision dividing the contiguous properties. The undivided property had benefitted from an easement to the south (the so-called Willow Lane connector easement), which extended over two other properties to connect to another easement over a private road known as Willow Lane, which ultimately connected to a public roadway.

The properties of Abbey and the Grosbards both benefitted from those easements. The 1959 easement extended the Willow Lane connector easement over the Grosbard’s property for the benefit of Abbey’s property. Consistent with the description of the Willow Lane connector easement in earlier deeds, the 1959 easement was described in the deed as “an easement of right of way for ingress and egress over a private road 35 feet in width” in common with the owner of the Grosbard’s property and others who may have the right. The metes and bounds of the 1959 easement was described as per the prior grants, with an additional portion extending approximately 256 feet in length across the western edge of the Grosbard’s property. A dirt and gravel driveway of approximately 10 feet in width within the Willow Lane connector easement provided the only road access to the Grosbard’s property. The dirt and gravel driveway extended to Abbey’s property over the 1959 easement across the Grosbard’s property. Abbey’s property also directly connected to a public roadway on the west.

The Grosbards acquired their property in February 2014. Abbey acquired its property in July 2014. The Grosbards alleged that, upon purchasing its property, Abbey engaged in conduct intended to improve the Grosbard’s property in the 1959 easement area by clearing a previously undeveloped section of the property, moving the 10-foot driveway to the eastern edge of the easement, and then landscaping the remaining 25-foot section abutting Abbey’s property.

The Grosbards filed suit. The first cause of action sought a judgment declaring that the 1959 easement was null and void because it was not recorded in the Grosbard’s chain of title. The second cause of action sought, in the alternative, a judgment declaring that the easement area was owned by the Grosbard’s; Abbey was entitled only to a reasonably necessary and convenient right-of-way over the easement area for the purposes of ingress and egress, and Abbey did not have the right to widen the right-of-way to the full width and length of the easement area. In its answer, Abbey asserted a counterclaim and sought a judgment declaring that it was entitled to utilize the entire width and length of the easement as a private road in perpetuity.

Abbey moved for summary judgment on its counterclaim and with respect to the declaratory judgment causes of action. The Grosbards cross-moved for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment causes of action and with respect to Abbey’s counterclaim.

In an order dated September 22, 2017, Supreme Court found that the 1959 easement was valid and that it afforded Abbey a right of ingress and egress only, but no right to the roadway itself. The Court further found no evidence that there had been a substantial interference upon Abbey’s right-of-way over the Grosbard’s property. The Court thereafter entered a judgment dated February 21, 2018, declaring that Abbey had an easement over the Grosbards’ property and was entitled to the reasonable and necessary use of their private roadway for the purpose of ingress and egress in the manner historically enjoyed by the parties, but had no right to the roadway itself and should not further disturb the Grosbard’s right to the quiet enjoyment of their property. Abbey appealed.

Express easements are defined by the intent, or object, of the parties. Where the intention in granting an easement is to afford only a right of ingress and egress, it is the right of passage and not any right in a physical passageway itself, that is granted to the easement holder. The appeals court found that the 1959 easement expressly granted “right of way for ingress and egress,” and no other purpose was specified. Thus, the scope of the use granted was specifically limited to ingress and egress, and Abbey had no right to the roadway itself. And where the grantor expressly stated that the creation of an easement was to provide a right-of-way for ingress to and egress from the grantee’s property, then the grantee may only use the easement in such manner as is reasonably necessary and convenient for that purpose.

Having only a right-of-way for the purpose of ingress and egress, there was no merit to Abbey’s contention that it was entitled to use the full expanse of the easement area described in its deed. The grant of the right-of-way for ingress and egress over the defined easement area was merely the grant of a convenient way, within those limits. Abbey’s owner acknowledged at her deposition that the existing driveway provided sufficient ingress and egress to Abbey’s property. And there was no evidence of any interference with that passage by the Grosbards.

The judgment of Supreme Court was affirmed.

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