Fee Simple Interest v. Easement

In my home state of Maryland, the Court of Special Appeals rendered a decision this year concerning interesting topics for surveyors such as dedications, easements, and navigable waters. This case was reported as Gregg Neck Yacht Club, Inc. v. County Commissioners of Kent County, Maryland 137 Md.App.732, 769 A.2d 982.

The Gregg Neck case involved a dispute concerning the ownership of real property. What had to be decided was whether a certain deed executed in 1950 conveyed an easement to Kent County or instead, a fee simple interest that included riparian rights, which encompassed a pier constructed by the appellant, the Gregg Neck Yacht Club, Inc. (GNYC). The pier situated on the Sassafras River was at the heart of this dispute.

GNYC had asked the trial court to determine the intent of a 1950 grant to the County, and after hearing from numerous witnesses, the court found that the 1950 deed conveyed a fee simple interest in the disputed land to the County, which necessarily included riparian rights. As a result, the trial court concluded that the pier built by GNYC belonged to the County. The deed at the heart of this controversy had conveyed to the County a 40 foot wide "right of way or strip of land … to be used in the extension, construction, improvement and maintenance of [a] County road." This deed did not mention riparian rights, nor did it use the term "in fee simple."


Well-Recognized Legal Concepts
GNYC contended that the trial court erred in concluding that a fee simple interest to the County was conveyed in the 40 foot right-of-way, which included riparian rights. GNYC conceded that generally a fee simple conveyance contains, among other things, a conveyance of riparian rights, but that the conveyance of the right-of-way in the 1950 deed amounted to an easement, and thus did not include the riparian rights. The County (the appellees) countered that the deed conveyed the land to it in fee simple, and therefore the County obtained the riparian rights.

The Appeals Court stated many well-recognized legal concepts in analyzing this case, such as "an easement is a non-possessory interest in the real property of another," and that "a right-of- way is nothing more than a special and limited right of use," and that the terms "right-of-way" and "easement" are synonymous. Further, the Court recognized, as an example, that a deed conveying a right-of-way to a railroad could constitute an estate in fee simple; and, in another example, if this had been an ordinary "common law dedication" the fee owner of land would have only conveyed an interest in the land to the public, usually to the local government having jurisdiction over the land.

Further, it was pointed out that the 1950 deed made it clear that the right-of-way was for the benefit of "the general public," as well as the "adjoining property owners." If the conveyance constituted a dedication, that dedication must be accepted in order to be complete. Although the County certainly accepted the land on which to construct the road, no evidence was presented at trial that the County accepted the riparian rights.

The main question presented was whether the right-of-way amounted to an easement or a fee simple interest. As it has been stated in many cases, a court is supposed to give effect to the intention of the parties, gleaned from the text of the entire instrument, unless that would violate some principle of law. Moreover, in interpreting a deed, whose language is clear and unambiguous on its face, the plain meaning of the words used shall govern without the assistance of extrinsic evidence.

After the Maryland Appeals Court took a close look at the 1950 deed, it was persuaded that the trial court erred in concluding that a fee simple interest to the County in the right-of-way was conveyed. In this deed, the right-of-way was for a specified use, and that would be consistent with the conveyance of an easement, and not of a fee simple interest. It was noteworthy that the term "fee simple" had been omitted from the language of the deed!

County Is Not the Owner
The Appeals Court further looked at the parol evidence presented at the trial, and that evidence irrefutably established that the grantor named in the 1950 deed only intended to convey an easement for a specific use. As the Appeals Court stated, "if, in 1950 [the grantor] intended to convey a fee simple interest to the County, with riparian rights, it is likely that he would have said so."

Moreover, even if the County had acquired some right to the pier, the principles of equitable estoppel and abandonment applied in this case with respect to the County's claim to the pier. At oral argument, the County conceded that "10 sets of County Commissioners have been dodging this for forty years." The Appeals Court responded to this last comment stating that the "county cannot change its mind in the forty-first year [!].

In conclusion, the Appeals Court stated that the evidence was uncontroverted that GNYC built the pier in late 1959 or early 1960, and even if the County did not know in advance of GNYC's plan to build the pier, it certainly knew of the pier once it was constructed. After the pier had been built, GNYC demonstrated unequivocal acts of ownership for forty years, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the County. As the County either neglected to accept the riparian rights or abandoned its riparian rights, the Appeals Court determined that the County was not the owner of the pier in question.


James J. Demma is an attorney with offices located in Rockville, Maryland. He is also a registered professional land surveyor in the state of Maryland, and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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