E-Alert Case Updates
Express Easement, Sufficiently Described, Can Be Created By a Memorandum in Compliance with Statute of Frauds
Emerald Hills Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. William E. Peters
In Emerald Hills Homeowners’ Assoc., Inc. v. Peters, No. 32, the Court of Appeals of Maryland was asked to consider a dispute over an easement. The easement was created in 1969 when a corporation controlled by Victor Posner acquired a sixty-four (64) acre parcel of land near Bel Air, Maryland from William and Margaret Sheppard. In the deed of conveyance, the Sheppards retained title to a little less than an acre of land, known as “Parcel 765.” In addition, the Sheppards reserved a non-exclusive right of way over a fifty (50) foot wide by one hundred (100) foot long strip of land (the “Right of Way Parcel”), to provide themselves access to Southview Road, a public street.
In 2000, Posner received approval to develop a residential community known as “Emerald Hills.” As part of the development, Posner constructed Streamview Court, a fifty (50) foot wide road ending in a cul-de-sac that shares points of intersection with each parcel in the Emerald Hills community. The intersection of the cul-de-sac with the edges of the Right of Way Parcel and Parcel 765 created a “Triangular Parcel.” The Plat, recorded in the land records of Harford County in 2000, designates both the Triangular Parcel and the Right of Way Parcel as “Passive Open Space” areas.
In 2001, Posner executed and recorded a Cross Easement Agreement (“Agreement”). The Agreement established that Posner was the owner and developer of the Emerald Hills Subdivision and that Posner, LLC was the owner of an adjacent subdivision, known as Greenridge Subdivision. As a condition of preliminary plan approval for the Emerald Hills Subdivision, Harford County required that Posner and Posner, LLC create reciprocal easements to permit lot owners in both subdivisions to enjoy a common right to use and access all open space areas, including the “Passive Open Space.”
In 2006, title to the passive open spaces, including the Triangular Parcel and the Right of Way Parcel, was conveyed to the Emerald Hills Homeowners’ Association. The conveyance did not include metes and bounds or other descriptions of the land conveyed, but merely referenced the “Passive Open Space” recorded in the land records of Harford County.
In 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Peters purchased Parcel 765 from William Sheppard’s estate “together with the rights, privileges, appurtenances and advantages thereto belonging or appertaining unto and to the proper use and benefit of [Mr. and Mrs. Peters].” The Peters then applied to Harford County for an access permit for the installation of a paved driveway on the Triangular Parcel, connecting their property to Streamview Court. Harford County approved the application and construction began.
The Emerald Hills Homeowners’ Association (the “HOA”) filed suit against the Peters seeking injunctive relief, compensatory damages and a declaratory judgment that the Triangular Parcel was not subject to an easement for the benefit of Parcel 765. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Circuit Court granted the HOA’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Special Appeals reversed on appeal. The Court of Special Appeals ruled that (1) the Plat established an express easement over the Triangular Parcel for the benefit of Parcel 765 and (2) the Cross Easement Agreement did not extinguish this easement.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals. First, the Court of Appeals held that the Plat sufficiently created an easement over the Triangular Parcel for the benefit of Parcel 765. The Court of Appeals rejected the HOA’s argument that a subdivision plat cannot create an express easement. Under Maryland law, a deed is not required to create an easement. Instead, express easements “may be created only in the mode and manner prescribed by the recording statutes.” In Dubrowin v. Schremp, 248 Md. 166 (1967), the Court of Appeals established that a right of way, otherwise (1) sufficiently described, could be created by a memorandum that (2) complied with the Statute of Frauds. The Court of Appeals found the HOA’s attempt to distinguish Dubrowin, which did not involve a plat, to be untenable.
The Court of Appeals found the Plat to be in compliance with the Statute of Frauds. Victor Posner’s signature appeared twice on the Plat, which the Court of Appeals found sufficient to satisfy the signature requirement, despite the HOA’s claims that Posner did not sign the Plat for the purpose of granting an easement. The Court of Appeals also rejected the HOA’s argument that there must be evidence of a contract or agreement in order for Maryland’s Statute of Frauds to apply. Maryland’s Statue of Frauds, by its plain terms, simply sets out the circumstances in which contracts must be in writing to be enforceable. It does not require evidence of a contract or agreement.
The HOA also argued that the Plat cannot satisfy the requirements of Maryland’s Statute of Frauds because words evidencing a conveyance of an interest – such as “grant,” “convey,” “transfer,” or “assign” – are absent from the Plat. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument because the case that the HOA relied on in support of its argument – Bruce v. Dyer, 309 Md. 421 (1987), establishing the necessity of a deed to sever a tenancy by the entirety – was not applicable to other real property interests.
The Court of Appeals also found the Plat to “sufficiently describe” the Right of Way. The HOA argued that the Plat failed to establish an easement because it failed to indicate which lot owners were intended to benefit. The Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that although the Plat’s legend did not name a specific individual as the grantee, the legend unambiguously identified Parcel 765 as the dominant estate and the Triangular Parcel as the servient estate. The Court of Appeals also found the description, “Area Reserved For The Use Of Lot Owners,” to be sufficient, despite the fact that it did not clarify the nature of the interest – i.e., whether ingress and egress was for pedestrians exclusively, traffic exclusively, or both.
Second, the Court of Appeals turned its attention to the Cross Easement Agreement. First, the Court of Appeals noted that a servient estate cannot unilaterally extinguish an express easement. Because neither the Peters, nor their predecessors in interest of the dominant estate were signatories to the Cross Easement Agreement, nothing contained therein could interfere with their possession of the easement.
The Court of Appeals subsequently remanded the case to the Circuit Court for Harford County so that a declaratory judgment consistent with the opinion could be entered.
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