Unless expressly denied by the terms of an easement, the owner of a servient estate is entitled to make reasonable changes in the location or dimensions of an easement, at the servient owner's expense, to permit normal use or development of the servient estate, but only if the changes do not (a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the owner of the easement in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created. This is a default rule, to apply only in the absence of an express prohibition against relocation in the instrument creating the easement and only to changes made by the servient, not the dominant, estate owner. It permits development of the servient estate to the extent it can be accomplished without unduly interfering with the legitimate interests of the easement holder. It maximizes the over-all property utility by increasing the value of the servient estate without diminishing the value of the dominant estate, minimizes the cost associated with an easement by reducing the risk that the easement will prevent future beneficial development of the servient estate, and encourages the use of easements.
MPM owned a parcel of land, which was subject to an easement owned by Dwyer. The easement provided access to a public way and had three branches, based on old cartways. Before MPM subdivided its property for development, MPM sought to consolidate the right-of-way and improve it, but the Dwyer, who owned the easement, rejected the proposal. MPM filed an action seeking a declaration that it could relocate a right-of-way. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Dwyer, the dominant owner of the easement interest and dismissed MPM's action.The case was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
Is the owner of a servient estate entitled to unilaterally change the location of an easement to permit development of the servient estate?
The high court held that the trial court had correctly applied Massachusetts common law in denying relief to MPM. Nevertheless, it went on to adopt Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) § 4.8 (3) in place of Massachusetts common law. The Court held the owner of a servient estate may relocate a right-of-way if there was no contrary provision in the instrument creating the easement, the easement's utility was not lessened, the easement owner was not burdened in its use and enjoyment, and the purpose of the easement was not frustrated. Therefore, the case was remanded for findings on those issues.