It seems that Robert Frost’s adage “Good fences make good neighbors” needs to be updated, at least for neighbors who own adjoining panhandle lots with narrow strips that extend to a public road.
In Chicago Title Ins. Co. v. Jen, 249 Md. App. 246 (2021), Allynnore Jen and Charles Shuler (Jen-Shulers) lived next to Dennis and Teresa Bull (Bulls) in Parkton, Baltimore County. Each of their lots contained a 15-foot strip of land that runs 155 feet to a public road. A driveway right of way on these strips served both properties, but the paved portion of the driveway was located mostly on the Bulls’ strip. The Bulls told the Jen-Shulers that they could not drive on the Bulls’ paved portion of the driveway, and the Bulls constructed obstacles to prevent the Jen-Shulers from doing so. It is not clear from the case what the source of the disagreement between the homeowners was, but perhaps it related to the Bulls’ claim that the Jen-Shulers owed them $7,200 for driveway maintenance and snow removal. In any event, the Jen-Shulers did what distressed homeowners often do when they have disagreements with their neighbors: they requested that the issuer of their owner’s policy of title insurance (here, Chicago Title Insurance Company) pay their legal expenses in their dispute with the Bulls. When Chicago Title denied coverage, the Jen-Shulers filed a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration (MIA).
After the dispute worked its way through the MIA process and then to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, it was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals (CSA). The Jen-Shulers claimed coverage from Chicago Title under the section of the title policy insuring against a “[l]ack of a right of access to and from the land.” The Jen-Shulers argued that they did not have a right of access to their land without obtaining an easement from the court to access the common driveway on the panhandle strip of the two properties. They claimed that Baltimore County regulations prohibited them from paving their strip of the panhandle and they did not have feasible access through the other public road that abutted their land. The CSA held that right of access to a public road does not mean reasonable or practical access.
According to the CSA, no Maryland case had previously decided this issue, but seven of the eight jurisdictions that had concluded that necessary access is satisfied if a property adjoins a public roadway. Therefore, the CSA ruled in favor of Chicago Title on this point.
Practice Point: The CSA noted that if the Jen-Shulers wanted their title policy to insure vehicular access, they could have obtained a specific endorsement covering that. The CSA also pointed out that had the Jen-Shulers obtained a survey and provided it to Chicago Title, the title company would have been on notice of the issue in a dispute relating to the panhandle strip.
For questions, contact Edward J. Levin.
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