Real Estate Update: Easement drafting news in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland has issued a decision giving a word of caution to easement drafters. In Joe the Grinder, Riva Road, LLC v. Riva, LLC, the Court held that an easement referencing a right of way for “vehicular ingress and egress” was ambiguous as the easement further described only a single-lane driving aisle “to” a traffic light but not “from” the traffic light.

In 2015, Anne Arundel County required Joe the Grinder to establish a common access easement across its coffee shop property permitting vehicular traffic between a neighboring commercial property and a traffic light. The resulting recorded Declaration of Easement provided for a “common right of way for vehicular ingress and egress for the benefit of [the neighboring parcel] over [Joe the Grinder’s parcel] to the Traffic Signal.” Following a period of increased traffic through the coffee shop’s parking lot, Joe the Grinder unilaterally executed and recorded an Amended Declaration to “clarify” that the easement was intended to only permit traffic to the traffic light and not from the traffic light. In so arguing, the coffee shop argued that “vehicular ingress and egress” meant one-directional traffic with “ingress” meaning to enter the coffee shop parcel from the neighboring parcel and “egress” meaning to leave the coffee shop parcel towards the traffic light. In support of its argument, the coffee shop directed the trial court to an attachment to the Declaration showing only a single drive aisle. Predictably, the neighboring parcel relied upon the usual and ordinary meaning of “ingress” and “egress” to mean a two-direction flow of traffic between the neighboring parcel and the traffic light.

After the trial court held that the 2015 Declaration was unambiguous and permitted for two-directional traffic between the neighboring parcel and the traffic light, the coffee shop appealed. In analyzing the issue, the appellate court began with a recitation of the traditional ambiguity rules, such as that an ambiguity exists when language is susceptible to more than one meaning and that one marker of ambiguity is where the terms of the document are facially inconsistent.

The Court held that the original Declaration was ambiguous. The Court noted that, on one hand, the “ingress and egress” language is most naturally read to provide both “to” the traffic light and “from” the traffic light. On the other hand, the Court held that the phrase “to the Traffic Signal”—together with the attachment showing a single drive aisle—contemplates only a one-directional travel.

The conflict between “vehicular ingress and egress” and a single drive aisle permitting only one-directional traffic may not be recognized as an ambiguity by many drafters. Given the volume of traffic through the coffee shop parcel, it is certainly possible to have a single lane in which traffic alternates. In any event, precision in drafting would have alleviated this lengthy and costly litigation.

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