Did Scholets Improperly Block Sardinos Sole Means of Access?
Lake-adjacent upstate properties bring to mind the pastoral, peaceful, and sublime. But, as a recent case illustrates, rural neighbors can be as contentious and litigious about their rights to access their properties as their downstate counterparts can be with respect to mid-town high-rise roof access rights.
The families of Kathleen Sardino and Arthur Scholet own adjacent parcels of property along the south shore of Big Moose Lake in the Town of Long Lake, Hamilton County. The Sardinos owned or occupied their respective properties (the Sardino Property and the Williamson Property) since the 1950s. They access their properties over a roadway referred to as the East Bay Extension, which extends in sequence from Judson Road across the property of Arthur Scholet and Diane Scholet, the property of Cosanne Schneberger and Scott Schneberger, the Williamson Property, and ending at the Sardino Property.
In 1968, the Sardinos’ predecessors acquired a permanent easement over Judson Road from William Judson, who, in turn, agreed to extend Judson Road to the boundary of the Scholets’ property. The easement agreement required the Sardinos’ predecessors to pay the costs and maintenance fees for the upkeep of Judson Road. The Sardinos maintained that the Judson Road easement was obtained in conjunction with an agreement between the parties’ predecessors to construct the roadway in exchange for a permanent easement or right-of-way to their respective parcels. The roadway was completed in 1969 and, according to the Sardinos, the parties have equally shared the maintenance costs ever since. Up until the present dispute began in 2018, the roadway provided the only means of overland access to the Sardinos’ properties.
In June 2018, the Scholet obtained a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency to construct a new road on their property, while converting the portion of the roadway crossing their property to private use. The permit required continued access for the other lot owners. An impasse occurred when the Scholets admittedly declined to grant an easement or right-of-way to the new road, taking the position that their historical use of the roadway was permissive only.
The Sardnos sued the Scholets for a determination of their right to use the roadway under theories of easement by estoppel and easement by prescription. Supreme Court granted their application for a preliminary injunction allowing their continued use of the roadway pending the outcome of the litigation. The Scholets and the Schnebergers appealed.
The appellate court affirmed. The party seeking a preliminary injunction must demonstrate a probability of success on the merits, the danger of irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction, and a balance of the equities in its favor. Whether to grant such provisional relief rests within the sound discretion of the trial court. An easement by estoppel may arise when, among other things, a party reasonably relies upon a servient landowner’s representation that an easement exists. To establish a prescriptive easement, a party must show that the use of the easement was open, notorious, hostile, and continuous for a period of 10 years.
Supreme Court acted within its discretion in both granting the injunction and setting a nominal amount for the undertaking. The Sardinos averred that their families had openly and continuously used the roadway for 50 years, all the while contributing to the roadway’s upkeep. Moreover, they reasonably maintained that their ancestors would not have acquired a permanent easement over Judson Road without a further agreement that their families would have a permanent right-of-way over the extension roadway they agreed to help build. Those factors provided a sound basis for the Sardinos’ claims of both an easement by estoppel and an easement by prescription. As for irreparable harm, without the use of the roadway and given that the Scholets’ construction plans include a “locked gate” across it, the Sardinos’ access would be limited to the waters of Big Moose Lake. While the Scholets maintained that continued traffic posed a safety concern for their grandchildren, the Sardinos’ use of the roadway for five decades tipped the balance of equities in their favor.