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Changing the Scope of Easements Taken by Eminent Domain

The Supreme Judicial Court recently held that an easement taken for one purpose may require additional compensation to the subservient estate if the scope of the easement is expanded, even if the borders of the affected land are unchanged. In Smiley First, LLC v. Dept. of Transportation, SJC-13300 (May 23, 2023), the plaintiff was the owner of land affected by the “Big Dig” project. In 1991, the state took by eminent domain an easement on plaintiff’s land to be used by Conrail for railroad purposes only. The Department of Transportation (DOT) thereafter acquired the easement. In 2018, DOT authorized the MBTA to utilize the land affected by the easement for a Red Line test track project, but refused to pay the plaintiff any further compensation, declaring that the use was for railroad purposes as provided in the 1991 taking. The plaintiff then sued.


The Superior Court agreed with DOT that the scope of the 1991 taking reasonably included use for the construction of a building and track to test new subway cars and dismissed the complaint. The SJC reversed. The Superior Court rejected the plaintiff’s reliance on the general principles pertaining to easements, such that they are disfavored and to be narrowly construed, on the grounds that those principles arise between private parties. This was error. While the intent of the landowner and the government entity taking the easement are irrelevant, the rules of construction applicable to privately granted easements will apply to easements taken by eminent domain. Thus, the general rule applies - easements should be construed in favor of the freedom of land from servitude.


In this case, the purpose of the 1991 easement was to facilitate the relocation of Conrail’s facilities to accommodate the construction of the haul road. While the easement could be used for ancillary railroad purposes, it could not be extended beyond the overriding purpose related to the haul road. The SJC concluded that the use of the land for a Red Line test track project was a new and different use than that contemplated under the 1991 taking. The Court also rejected the argument that the use of the burdened land for the Red Line project was a “public use of a like kind” to the Conrail operations, as the latter was limited to a single track and the Red Line project added a track, a building, and parking. Finally, the Court rejected that the entire area of the parcel described in the easement was burdened by the 1991 taking. Rather, the square footage included in the taking only meant that Conrail could choose anywhere within that area to place its new relocated track. Once fixed, however, the landowner was free to use the remaining area free and clear of the easement.


The Court noted that the state could have described the purpose of the 1991 taking broadly enough to burden perpetually the entire square footage of the burdened property for any and all purpose. Since it did not do so, the state was required to pay just compensation for expansion of the easement. The matter was remanded for consideration of damages.


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