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.
The dominant owner's right-of-way, which provided access to a public way, had three branches, based on old cartways. Before it subdivided its property for development, the servient owner sought to consolidate the right-of-way and improve it, but the dominant owner rejected the proposal. The servient owner filed an action in court seeking a declaration that it could relocate a right-of-way. The trial court dismissed the action. The case was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
Was the dismissal proper?
The high court held that the trial court had correctly applied Massachusetts case law in denying relief to the servient owner, but it went on to adopt a rule that was beginning to gain acceptance after articulation in the Restatement. It allowed the owner of a servient estate to relocate a right-of-way, if there was no contrary provision in the instrument creating the easement, so long as 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 cause would have to be remanded for findings on those issues.