Restrictive covenants limit what an owner can do with real property. As such, they are disfavored by the legal system. Thus, when a court interprets restrictive covenants, it will do so narrowly. If a restrictive covenant is not written clearly, a court may not enforce it.
In Mazzola v Deeplands Development, the Michigan Court of Appeals was presented with a set of restrictive covenants to interpret. The plaintiffs were residents of two Grosse Pointe subdivisions. When the original parcel of land was divided into the subdivisions in the 1950s, restrictive covenants were placed on the land. The restrictions also applied to the parcel of land retained by the original owner.
A developer purchased the land retained by the original owner. The developer planned to build a street with a cul-de-sac and divide the land into 18 parcels for residential development. The residents of the neighboring subdivisions sued to prevent the development. The neighbors claimed the proposed development was in violation of the restrictive covenants.
Specifically, the neighbors claimed the covenants prevented the building of a new road on the property and they constrained the size and location of future lots. The Wayne County Circuit Court granted the developer’s motion for summary disposition. The circuit court agreed with the developer that the covenants did not apply in the manner argued by the neighbors. The neighbors appealed the ruling.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals emphasized that “restrictive covenants are construed strictly against those claiming the right to enforce them, and all doubts are resolved in favor of the free use of property.” The court referred to this principle as “fundamental.”
Turning to the specific covenants in this case, the court agreed with the circuit court. It found that the neighbors had read more into the covenants than what was actually written. The neighbors’ arguments rested on “necessary implications” rather than the plain language of the covenants. In light of the principle to resolve doubts in favor of the free use of property, the court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling in favor of the developer and dismissed the case.
This case affirms a fundamental principle: restrictive covenants are generally enforceable, but only when written clearly and unambiguously. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience with all land use matters. If you have questions regarding the enforcement of restrictive covenants, please contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.