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Rhode Island Water Easement Disputes

Access to water greatly affects the value of developed and undeveloped property in Rhode Island. In areas outside cities and towns that do not have access to municipal or other public water systems, wells may provide the only water for residential or commercial development. A recently decided appeal by a state Supreme Court demonstrates the types of conflicts that may arise when tracts of property served by a well are divided up and sold to different owners.

The plaintiffs in the recently decided case were the owners of a property in rural New Hampshire. The defendants had purchased a part of the original property from the plaintiffs nearly 20 years ago. They were granted a temporary easement to use the well on the plaintiffs’ property to allow water for the home they intended to build on the property. According to the deed, the easement was temporary, and valid only until another water source became available for the defendants to use. After the defendants had used the well on the plaintiffs’ property for 19 years without constructing another well or obtaining an alternate water source, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the defendants from using the well.

At trial, the plaintiffs argued that the deed’s language was not clear as to the term of the easement, but the fact it was stated to be a temporary easement implied that the defendants would be responsible for obtaining their own water at some point. The trial court agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that the deed’s language gave an easement to the defendants until another source of water “becomes available” must have implied that the defendants were to make reasonable efforts to obtain another water source. As a result of the ruling, the defendants were given three years to construct a well and stop using the plaintiffs’ well, as the easement would no longer be valid. The defendants appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

On appeal, the state supreme court reversed the lower decision, basing their findings on the deed’s language, which the court found was not ambiguous. Because the deed granted an easement to the defendants to use the plaintiffs’ well until another source of water became available, and since another source of water had not yet become available, the defendants maintained an easement to use the plaintiffs’ well. The court noted that a temporary easement such as that created by the deed language may exist indefinitely. There is no implication that the easement must necessarily expire at some point. So long as an alternate source of water (which could include connection to a public water system as well as another well) is not available, then the defendants are entitled to use the plaintiff’s well. As a result of this ruling, the defendants will not be required to construct a well of their own, and may use the plaintiffs’ well until an alternate water source becomes available.

This decision demonstrates the importance of the language of contracts, deeds, and other written instruments that are used in real estate transactions. Even if the plaintiffs in the recently decided case intended to grant the defendants an easement that would eventually expire, by agreeing to the language in the deed that was executed, they granted the defendants indefinite use of their well.

Obtaining Sound Legal Advice for a Successful Rhode Island Real Estate Transaction

If you are looking to buy or sell real estate in Rhode Island, there may be issues with water rights, access, or other easements that could arise during the transaction. Retaining a qualified Rhode Island real estate attorney can ensure that you don’t mistakenly give up rights or privileges when agreeing to the terms of your transaction. The skilled property law attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo understand contractual and real estate law and give the attention to detail that you need to have peace of mind with your real estate transaction and avoid future litigation. Schedule a no-obligation consultation with Bilodeau Capalbo by contacting our offices at 401-300-4055 today.

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