Determining the width of a right-of-way may be more difficult than you think, even when the dimensions are specifically defined.  New York courts take the approach that elevates the right of passage over full use an easement described by deed.

Recently, in Grosbard v Willow Lane, LLC 192 AD3d 773 [2d Dept. 2021], the Second Department confirmed that a right-of-way for purposes of ingress and egress merely grants the dominant estate owner (easement holder) the right of passage over the servient estate (land owner), but not unfettered use of the entire easement area described in its deed.

In this case, the plaintiff’s property was burdened by an express easement that benefited the defendant’s property.  The easement, granted as part of a 1959 subdivision, was described in the deed as “an easement of right of way for ingress and egress over a Private Road 35 feet in width.”  The metes and bounds description were recorded.

In February 2014, the plaintiffs acquired their property.  In July 2014, the defendants acquired their property.  At that time, a dirt and gravel driveway, approximately 10 feet in width, provided access to defendant’s property.  Soon after their purchase, defendants began clearing a previously wooded section of the easement, moving the 10-foot-wide driveway to the eastern edge of the easement and then landscaping the remaining 25-foot section of the easement.  Litigation ensued.

The plaintiffs sought a judgement declaring that the easement area only entitled defendants to a reasonably necessary right of passage, and no right to widen the right-of-way. In their answer, defendants asserted a counter claim seeking, inter alia, a judgment declaring that they were entitled to utilized the entire width and length of the easement.

The Appellate Division, in affirming the trial court, concluded that although the easement provided for “ingress and egress over a 35-foot right of way,” over a portion of plaintiff’s property should be limited to the 10-foot roadway, since defendants failed to establish that driveway was inadequate for the expressly stated purpose intended by the grantee in creating the easement.  The court held that the grant of a right-of-way for ingress and egress over a defined easement is merely the “grant of a convenient way, within those limits.”

This brief ruling reaffirms the balance between landowner’s rights and an easement holder’s right of passage.