The Landscaping Wall in the Buffer Zone: A Look at the Decision in Palanchian v. Mitchell
In a recent controversy that made its way to New Hampshire’s high court, the dispute revolved around an easement granted to Scott Mitchell (“Mitchell”) over Mark Palanchian’s (“Palanchian”) property in Gilford, New Hampshire.
The parties owned adjacent properties, and Mitchell’s driveway ran alongside Palanchian’s land. As part of a settlement agreement in 2016, Mitchell was granted a driveway easement over Palanchian’s property, allowing him and his family members, agents, successors, tenants, invitees, licensees, and the general public to access his property by vehicle and by foot. The settlement agreement also included an easement providing for a three-and-one-half-(3.50) foot buffer zone adjacent to the driveway.
The relevant language of the buffer-zone easement allowed Mitchell to use the area for landscaping and for plowing snow that fell in the driveway easement area. More specifically, it stated that Mitchell “shall be responsible for landscaping and maintaining said buffer [zone] in a clean and attractive manner.”
In 2020, a new dispute arose between the parties when Mitchell installed a stone and concrete wall within the buffer zone. Palanchian responded by filing a complaint against Mitchell, arguing that the construction of the wall exceeded the scope of the easement deed. The case went to the trial court, which granted summary judgment in favor of Palanchian. The trial court ruled that the buffer zone was intended for both landscaping and snow plowing, and the wall worked to impede snow plowing, contradicting the unambiguous language of the easement deed. Consequently, the lower court ordered the removal of the wall.
Mitchell appealed the decision to the State of New Hampshire Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reviewed the merits of the case, focusing on the interpretation of the language used by the parties in the easement deed. After careful consideration, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision.
The Supreme Court concluded that the trial court had erred in interpreting the easement deed. It disagreed with the trial court’s determination that the buffer zone could only be used in a way that promoted both landscaping and snow removal. The Supreme Court confirmed that the easement deed’s plain language did not impose this sort of limitation on “landscaping.” Furthermore, the deed permitted Mitchell to use the buffer zone for landscaping purposes, and the construction of the wall fell within the definition of landscaping.
In determining the plain meaning of “landscaping,” the Supreme Court considered how a reasonable person would interpret the term. It concluded that “landscaping” included improving an area through landscape architecture or “hardscaping,” which encompassed certain built features such as the wall. Thus, the Court recognized that the wall served a landscaping purpose by neatly separating the landscaping from the driveway and preventing soil erosion and runoff.
Based on the above reasoning, the Supreme Court reversed the entry of summary judgment in favor of Palanchian and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Mitchell, the defendant.
Going forward, the Palanchian decision holds some implications for the interpretation of easement deeds and the rights and obligations of parties involved in such agreements. And, the ruling also underscores the importance of using precise language when drafting legal documents, as ambiguities or misinterpretations can lead to costly legal disputes for the parties.
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