OPINION OF THE COURT
FUENTES, Circuit Judge.
This action was initiated by the Township of Piscataway and a group of homeowners to prevent Duke Energy Operating Company, LLC ("Duke") and Texas Eastern Transmission, LP ("Texas Eastern") from removing fifty shade trees planted along a public street in Piscataway, New Jersey. The companies claimed that it was necessary to remove the trees for the safe inspection and maintenance of three high-pressure, natural gas pipelines located beneath the street. After the Township settled with Duke and Texas Eastern, the companies and the homeowners cross-moved for summary judgment. The District Court ruled in favor of the homeowners and permanently enjoined Duke and Texas Eastern from removing the trees. Because we conclude that there are genuine issues of material fact as to (1) whether removal of the trees is reasonably necessary to the maintenance of the pipelines, and (2) whether Duke and Texas Eastern are barred by the doctrine of laches from asserting a right to remove the trees pursuant to an easement grant, we will vacate the District Court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.
In the early 1940s, Flora and H. Morgan Heath, predecessors-in-title to the homeowners in this lawsuit, took title to a large tract of undeveloped land located in the Township of Piscataway (the "Heath property").
Id. Defense Plant subsequently constructed two twenty-inch diameter natural gas pipelines.
In the years that followed, Max and Mildred Richter and Ethel and Philip Gerber assumed title to the Heath property, and Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation ("TETCO") succeeded to Defense Plant's easement rights. In January 1960, the Richters and Gerbers granted TETCO the right to construct a third pipeline across the property. The 1960 grant imposed
App. at 74. TETCO then constructed a third, thirty-six-inch diameter pipeline.
Over the next several years, the Heath property passed through the hands of a number of different owners. In February 1963, three real estate development companies that then owned the property entered into an agreement with TETCO in which TETCO agreed to reduce the size of the easement by releasing all portions of the land in the 1944 and 1960 grants not needed for the pipelines. Attached to the 1963 agreement is a drawing prepared by TETCO, which shows a proposed residential neighborhood (referred to as "University Hill") through which TETCO's sixty-foot wide easement runs at a slight diagonal. The 1963 agreement preserved all of the rights and restrictions set forth in the 1944 and 1960 grants.
As a result of residential development of the property, the land on which the easement is located became a one-block long public street named Fountain Avenue. The street is flanked by a large number of trees, many of which were planted in the early 1960s as part of the original residential development of the neighborhood and have grown to nearly seventy-five feet in height. The homeowner-appellees live in single-family homes built by the developers on lots adjacent to Fountain Avenue. Though all of the trees at issue in this appeal are located on Township property, the homeowners view the trees, from a practical and aesthetic perspective, as extensions of their front yards.
In April 2000, Duke announced that it would be removing approximately eighty trees from Fountain Avenue in order to better maintain the pipelines. Township residents vehemently opposed the proposed action. In October 2001, after several attempts to negotiate an agreement with Duke failed, the Township and the homeowners sued for injunctive relief in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County, Chancery Division. The verified complaint asserted state law causes of action for trespass, breach of easement, and nuisance. The Superior Court immediately entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting Duke from removing the trees on Fountain Avenue.
Duke thereafter removed the matter to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. In its answer, Duke denied the allegations set forth in the verified complaint, and counterclaimed for injunctive relief
In March 2003, the Township settled with Duke and consented to the immediate removal of fifty-five trees from Fountain Avenue, as well as to the future removal of any trees that exceed eight inches in diameter. The homeowners proceeded with the action and, following a hearing on April 26, 2005, the District Court denied the homeowners' request for a jury trial and dismissed the trespass claim. The District Court, however, held that the homeowners had standing to pursue the remaining breach of easement and nuisance claims. After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on their respective breach of easement claims.
On September 20, 2005, the District Court granted the homeowners' motion for summary judgment and denied Duke's cross-motion for summary judgment on the parties' respective breach of easement claims. The Court concluded that Duke failed to proffer any evidence that removal of the trees was "reasonably necessary" to the maintenance of the pipelines. In addition, the District Court found that Duke was barred by the doctrine of laches from asserting a right to remove the trees pursuant to the terms of the easement grant. Accordingly, the District Court permanently enjoined Duke from removing any of the trees from Fountain Avenue.
This timely appeal followed. We have appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We exercise plenary review over standing issues, Gen. Instrument Corp. v. Nu-Tek Elecs. & Mfg., Inc., 197 F.3d 83, 86 (3d Cir.1999), as well as a district court's summary judgment ruling, Mortellite v. Novartis Crop Prot., Inc., 460 F.3d 483, 488 n. 3 (3d Cir.2006).
After first addressing Duke's contention that the individual homeowners lack standing to bring this action, we turn to the District Court's rulings on the issues of reasonable necessity and laches.
The doctrine of standing encompasses both constitutional requirements and prudential considerations. Miller v. Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp., 362 F.3d 209, 221 (3d Cir.2004). The constitutional component derives from the Article III "case or controversy" requirement and has three elements:
Prudential standing "constitute[s] a supplemental aspect of the basic standing analysis and address[es] concerns regarding the need for judicial restraint." Oxford Assoc. v. Waste Sys. Auth., 271 F.3d 140, 145 (3d Cir.2001). Thus, "[w]e . . . use the prudential limits of standing to ensure that only those parties who can best pursue a particular claim will gain access to the courts." Id. Prudential standing rests on the following principles:
Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, 140 F.3d at 485 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
Duke contends that the homeowners do not have standing to enforce the terms of the easement grant because the homeowners were neither parties to the grant, nor owners of the land that is subject to its terms. We are not persuaded by Duke's argument and conclude that the homeowners have standing to pursue this action.
The fifty trees that Duke wishes to remove are located in front of the homeowners' property. In affidavits submitted to the District Court, the homeowners stated that they purchased their homes in part because of the economic and aesthetic value of the trees. Expert reports and certifications submitted to the District Court attest that the trees add to the value of the homeowners' property, help reduce air pollution, improve air quality, and provide cooling shade which reduces energy costs in the summer months. As the District Court observed, given the age and size of the trees, they are effectively irreplaceable. Removing the trees would cause actual injury to the homeowners, and a judicial determination that Duke cannot lawfully engage in the proposed conduct would unquestionably prevent that injury. Accordingly, we agree with the District Court that the homeowners have standing to pursue this action.
We also note that the homeowners have a cause of action under New Jersey law. As New Jersey's highest court stated
See also, Roehrs v. Lees, 178 N.J.Super. 399, 429 A.2d 388, 391 (1981) ("The judge properly ruled that plaintiff had the burden of demonstrating that the covenant was intended for his benefit and that defendants were aware of its existence and of its purpose to benefit plaintiff. Once that burden had been met plaintiff was entitled to enforce the covenant for his benefit. . . ."); Mango v. Brodsko, 32 N.J.Super. 616, 108 A.2d 879, 880 (1954) ("Generally, a restrictive covenant imposed upon land by a grantor in a conveyance of a portion of a tract of land, if such restrictions are for the benefit of the balance of the land retained by the grantor, may be enforced by him or a subsequent grantee of the whole or a part of said retained land.").
In this case, the restrictions set forth in the easement grant were clearly intended by the original grantor, the homeowners' predecessors-in-title, to benefit the land by ensuring that the pipelines would not unduly interfere with the cultivation and development of the property. The homeowners took title to their homes with notice of the easement grant, and the rights and restrictions set forth in the grant. It is reasonable to infer from the drawing attached to the 1963 agreement that when TETCO, Duke's predecessor-in-title, executed the agreement, it was aware that the owners of the property—three real estate development companies—planned to build a residential neighborhood through which the pipelines would run. Based on these facts, the individual homeowners have a cause of action under New Jersey law.
We now turn to (1) whether removal of the trees on Fountain Avenue is "reasonably necessary" to Duke's maintenance of the pipelines, and (2) whether Duke is barred by the doctrine of laches from asserting a right to remove the trees pursuant to the terms of the easement grant.
Duke operates the pipelines and maintains the easement pursuant to certificates of public convenience and necessity issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC"). The Company is subject to regulation by FERC under the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. § 717, and by the Department of Transportation ("DOT") under the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, 49 U.S.C. § 60101. Applicable regulations require Duke to inspect the pipelines on a regular basis, but do not prescribe a particular method of inspection. See 49 C.F.R. § 192.705 (2006).
Duke has promulgated a set of Standard Operating Procedures ("SOPs") that meet and, in some cases, exceed federal requirements. Pursuant to its SOPs, Duke typically conducts aerial surveillance of the easement three times per week in order to
Every few years, Duke inspects the pipelines using a device referred to in the industry as a "smart pig," which is placed inside the pipelines to measure the thickness of the pipeline walls. Because of the difficulty and expense associated with its use, the smart pig is not deployed on a routine basis. As of May 2006, the date the parties briefed this appeal, the smart pig had last been used to inspect the Fountain Avenue portion of the pipelines in 2003 and 2004, at which time no irregularities or weaknesses in the walls were detected.
In addition, the state of New Jersey has implemented a "One-Call System," which requires contractors to notify the state several days prior to the start of any excavation project. Duke and other pipeline operators are required by the One-Call System to respond to any such notification and to work with the contractors to ensure that the pipelines are not damaged or disturbed in the course of excavation. See N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 48:2-73 to -91 (1998 & Supp.2007).
The easement grant explicitly confers upon Duke the right to inspect and maintain the pipelines, but does not specify whether that right includes the authority to remove trees or foliage from the pipeline right-of-way. Even in the absence of an express right, however, "there is, arising out of every easement, an implied right to do what is reasonably necessary for its complete enjoyment, that right to be exercised, however, in such reasonable manner as to avoid unnecessary increases in the burden upon the landowner." Tide-Water Pipe Co. v. Blair Holding Co., 42 N.J. 591, 202 A.2d 405, 412 (1964). As the New Jersey Supreme Court has explained, "the touchstone is necessity and not convenience." Hammett v. Rosensohn, 26 N.J. 415, 140 A.2d 377, 383 (1958).
Duke asserts that removal of the trees is reasonably necessary for inspection and maintenance of the pipelines. More specifically, Duke contends that (1) the trees prevent it from conducting aerial surveillance of the pipeline right-of-way; (2) the trees impede emergency access to the pipelines in the event of an unexpected and potentially devastating pipeline emergency; and (3) root growth from the trees is damaging the protective coating of the pipelines thereby increasing the possibility of a dangerous gas leak or explosion.
a) Aerial Surveillance
The District Court found that Duke "proffer[ed] no evidence that airplanes could not see construction equipment through the trees' branches, and they proffer[ed] no facts to demonstrate that land surveillance, in combination with the warning signs against construction on Fountain Avenue (required by law) and the Township's ability to regulate construction on its property, is ineffective to give them notice regarding safety and maintenance of the pipelines." App. at 25. We disagree, and conclude that Duke introduced sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue as to whether aerial surveillance is reasonably necessary to the maintenance of the pipelines and, if so, whether the Fountain Avenue trees prevent such surveillance.
For example, Duke presented an expert report prepared by Terry Mock, a right-of-way consultant with experience in the utilities industry. Mock stated in his report:
App. at 360-62.
According to the certified statement of Don Thompson, a Right-of-Way Supervisor for Duke Energy:
App. at 486.
Duke also submitted to the District Court "Special Report 281," prepared in 2004 by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies,
App. at 532.
In addition, the Pre-Trial Order entered by the District Court indicated that Duke intended to present Steven Warner, a Duke pilot, as a trial witness who would "testify pertaining to tree cover making him unable to observe the Easement from the air." App. at 656.
This evidence, of course, does not necessarily establish that aerial surveillance is necessary to the safe maintenance of the pipelines, as opposed to being more convenient or cost-effective than land surveillance. On a motion for summary judgment, however, Duke must only proffer evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial. We think Duke has done so, and that the evidence Duke has presented justifies a full hearing on the merits of their argument.
b) Emergency Access
The District Court likewise rejected Duke's contention that the Fountain Avenue trees prevent them from gaining quick access to the pipelines in the event of an emergency. The sole explanation offered by the District Court was that "[n]o evidence has been proffered regarding what trees are currently in the way or that any such tree could not be quickly removed in the event of an emergency." App. at 26.
c) Root Growth
With respect to alleged dangers posed by root growth, the District Court stated:
App. at 26. Although the District Court raises significant concerns, there is also substantial evidence in the record suggesting that the tree roots nevertheless pose a significant threat to the integrity of the pipelines. For example, Duke's expert, Terry Mock, stated in his report:
App. at 379-83; 390; 392-93.
Mock further stated:
App. at 434-35.
Moreover, we think the District Court overlooked evidence that would explain Duke's decision not to conduct root tests on either the existing Fountain Avenue trees or the five trees that were removed from Fountain Avenue in December 2004
App. at 478-79. In view of this evidence, we conclude that a full hearing on the dangers posed by root growth is appropriate.
In sum, we conclude that because there is a triable issue of fact as to whether removal of the trees is reasonably necessary to Duke's maintenance of the pipelines, the District Court should not have entered summary judgment in favor of the homeowners.
The District Court also ruled that Duke was barred by the doctrine of laches from asserting a right to remove the trees pursuant to the terms of the easement grant. Specifically, the District Court found that Duke's "forty-year delay" in asserting a right to remove the trees was inexcusable and prejudicial to the homeowners, who purchased their homes believing that the trees would remain on Fountain Avenue and thereby contribute to their use and enjoyment of their property.
Under New Jersey law, laches is "an equitable defense that may be interposed in the absence of the statute of limitations." Lavin v. Bd. of Ed., 90 N.J. 145, 447 A.2d 516, 519 (1982). "Laches may only be enforced when the delaying party had sufficient opportunity to assert the right in the proper forum and the prejudiced party acted in good faith believing that the right had been abandoned." Knorr v. Smeal, 178 N.J. 169, 836 A.2d 794, 800 (2003). "The key factors to be considered in deciding whether to apply the doctrine are the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, and the `changing conditions of either or both parties during the delay.'" Id. (quoting Lavin, 447 A.2d at 520). These are factual determinations that typically should be made after a full evidentiary hearing. See, e.g., 27A Am.Jur.2d Equity § 201 (1996) ("Where a defendant asserts the laches defense, a full
In its decision, the District Court rejected, out of hand, Duke's proffered explanation for not seeking to remove the trees prior to April 2000. In the District Court's words, "[Duke's] explanation for this delay is that they have increased the stringency of their SOPs beyond that legally required by safety standards, an event completely within [Duke's] control. Stringent procedures are laudable, but [Duke] can produce equal results with ground surveillance as with aerial surveillance." App. at 30. There is, however, significant evidence in the record that would explain Duke's failure to remove the trees prior to April 2000.
For example, Thompson, Duke's Right of Way Manager, offered the following explanations in his certified statement:
Duke introduced other evidence to explain why it did not seek to remove the trees before 2000. For example, Special Report 281 discusses recent pipeline failures and accidents, as well as the industry's response to these incidents:
App. at 512; 513; 524; 609. In light of these newly promulgated standards, as well as the greater attention paid to pipeline safety as a result of recent catastrophes, we believe the evidence is sufficiently compelling to create a genuine issue for trial on the homeowners' laches defense to Duke's breach of easement claim.
We recognize that a bench trial on the merits could result in precisely the same outcome should the District Court, after a full evidentiary hearing, conclude that removal of the trees is not reasonably necessary to the safe maintenance of the pipelines, or that Duke's decision not to seek removal of the trees prior to April 2000 bars it from doing so now.
For the foregoing reasons, we will vacate the judgment of the District Court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.