The Rights of an Easement Holder to Improve a Right of Way or Paper Street in Massachusetts

By Robert Nislick

You are a Massachusetts homeowner. Your property abuts a street that may never have been paved. It could be a dirt road that is hard to navigate in wet weather and dusty and bumpy when it is dry.

Alternatively, your property abuts a street that exists only on paper. The way exists in a deed or on a plan. But in reality, no road has ever been built, and the area is completely covered with trees.

It is possible that you own land that is set back from a public way. In order to get to the property, you need to cross over a paper street, which is actually someone else’s yard.

Whatever the situation on the ground has been in the past, you want to improve the right of way. Assuming you have rights to use this way, what rights do you have as an easement holder to use and improve this right of way or paper street?

A holder of a right of way typically has the right to make it passable and usable for its entire width. See Guillet v. Livernois, 297 Mass. 337, 340 (1937). The right of anyone entitled to use a private way to make reasonable repairs and improvements is well established in cases where the way is already in use. The right exists even more clearly where without improvement the way is impassable and useless. See id.

Where an easement grants the “right to pass and repass” that right has been found to include all rights reasonably incidental to the enjoyment of the right to pass, including the right to make reasonable repairs and improvements to the right of way. See Farber v. Chatham Conservation Found., 56 Mass. App. Ct. 584, 589 (2002).

“Such reasonable repairs include paving the easement and such other improvements as would be consistent with principles of safety.” Barlow v. Chongris & Sons, Inc., 2 LCR 22, 23 (1994), aff’d, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 297 (1995). “Clearing limbs from a roadway, smoothing the surface of a way, placing gravel on a road, or even paving a road have been condoned as reasonable repairs, if necessary to enjoyment of the easement.” Glenn v. Poole, 12 Mass. App. Ct. 292, 296 (1981).

Additionally, G. L. c. 187, § 5, states in part: “”The owner or owners of real estate abutting on a private way who have by deed existing rights of ingress and egress upon such way or other private ways shall have the right by implication to place, install or construct in, on, along, under and upon said private way or other private ways pipes, conduits, manholes and other appurtenances necessary for the transmission of gas, electricity, telephone, water and sewer service, provided such facilities do not unreasonably obstruct said private way or other private ways”. G. L. c. 187, § 5.

“Courts have found that private utilities fall within a broad spectrum of rights given to easement holders by G. L. c. 187 § 5.” Shawkemo Ducklands LLC v. Nantucket Planning Board, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 07 MISC 355356 (AHS), slip op. at 52 (Sands, J.) (Oct. 26, 2012). The installation of private septic systems and drainage systems have been deemed permissible pursuant to the statute.

Additionally, the statute applies to persons hold easement rights not only by deed, but also “when rights in a way arise by implication or necessity based on the parties intent,” and also to “an easement by estoppel.” See Post v. McHugh, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 200, 206 (2010).

About the author: Robert Nislick is a Massachusetts real estate lawyer and former law clerk at the Land Court.  For more information, contact him at (508) 405-1238, or by e-mail.

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