On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Monmouth County.
Furman, Dreier and Shebell. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, J.A.D.
This appeal involves a dispute between adjacent landowners over whether an easement presently exists along their common property boundary line. The Chancery Division found for plaintiffs and declared the right-of-way to continue on a theory of implied reciprocal easement. Defendants appeal from that judgment.
The right-of-way in dispute runs along a property boundary line common to two adjoining land tracts situated between Obre Road and Stockland Farms in Colts Neck. The parties do not dispute that the right-of-way originally existed as an easement by necessity since about 1840 for the benefit of a landlocked farm known previously as Obre's Farm and currently as Stockland Farms. This roadway ran from the farm property to Obre Road. The center line of the roadway formed the north and south borders respectively of the Leach and Anderl tracts, which were subdivided in 1932, while Obre Road and the farm formed the east and west borders respectively of both tracts. The easement was believed to be approximately 20 feet in width to accommodate farm traffic.
Richard Leach and plaintiff, Elizabeth Leach, acquired title to the tract south of the right-of-way in October 1955. Richard is now deceased. In 1958 they conveyed a subdivided parcel in the western half of their tract to John S. Zsido. This parcel is now held outright by their daughter, Anna Leach Zsido. The defendants, Josef and Gisela Anderl, acquired title to the tract north of the right-of-way in April 1963.
The deeds for each of these three tracts indicate a common property boundary line, described variously in the Leach and Zsido chain of title since the 1932 subdivision severing common ownership as the middle or center line of a 20-foot wide road running from Obre Road to Obre's Brook on Obre's Farm, and described in the Anderl chain of title since the same 1932 subdivision as the center or center line of the existing road to Obre's Farm.
Differences also exist among the various surveys. The Anderls purchased under the 1954 Mitchell survey conducted for their predecessor-in-title. The starting point for that survey was the intersection of the center lines of the right-of-way and Obre Road as then existing contrary to prior deed descriptions which began at a red cedar tree which has since vanished. Based on the Mitchell survey, the right-of-way is now 10 feet wide with the eastern segment lying south of the center or boundary line described in the Mitchell survey. On the other hand, the 1974 S & M survey of the Leach tract confirmed the conclusions of the 1955 Seaman survey of the Leach tract, differing with the 1954 Mitchell survey by about 15 feet. Based on the Seaman survey, the eastern starting point of the center line of the right-of-way is about 20 feet north of where the Mitchell survey found it. Despite these and other discrepancies, plaintiffs' expert offered uncontested testimony that Mitchell's closure calculations produced no errors of significance.
In recent years of heavy use of the right-of-way by the owners of the landlocked farm, the defendants Anderl began sporadic attempts to partially impede the right-of-way by various obstructions and they closed the right-of-way for 24 hours in 1971. These attempts were allegedly to prevent incursion on the Anderls' property caused "by driving onto the side to be enlarged toward my property." In 1983, following litigation, the right of the owners of Stockland Farms to further use of the right-of-way was terminated by the court since Stockland Farms had acquired another tract of land connecting the farm with Obre Road. Since that time the only parties using the right-of-way have been the Anderls, Mrs. Zsido and Mrs. Leach.
Both the Anderl and Leach properties front Obre Road. The Leach home currently utilizes direct access to Obre Road independent of the right-of-way in dispute. The houses of the Anderls and Mrs. Zsido are set back a considerable distance from Obre Road and have relied on the right-of-way for ingress and egress. Plaintiffs assert that an easement exists 10 feet on
either side of the boundary line described in the 1954 Mitchell survey as following the center line of the right-of-way along the western segment before diverting north of the right-of-way along the eastern segment. Defendants assert there is no present easement, but that if it does exist it must follow the center of the current right-of-way.
The trial court in declaring "an implied and reciprocal easement" to exist adopted the engineering conclusions of the Mitchell survey, in particular the establishment of the beginning point and center line. The court bound all parties to a location of the right-of-way based on that survey. The defendants were held responsible for costs of restoration of the right-of-way to a 20 foot width, and both parties were held mutually responsible for continued maintenance.
At common law an easement is defined as a nonpossessory incorporeal interest in another's possessory estate in land, entitling the holder of the easement to make some use of the other's property. See Mahony v. Danis, 95 N.J. 50, 58 (1983) ...