Washington County Superior Court
Nicholas Gorham, Esq. For Plaintiff
William R. Landry, Esq. For Defendant
This case arises out of a request for declaratory relief pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-30-2 to declare the rights of the Plaintiff, Clifton Payne (Clifton), as well as a request for an injunction by Clifton against his co-tenant and sister, the Defendant, Carole Payne (Carole), as those claims relate to property held subject to an agreement by both parties, identified as Plat 5, Lot 110 in the Town of New Shoreham.
Facts and Travel
Clifton and Carole own Plat 5, Lot 110 in the Town of New Shoreham (Town or the Town) as co-tenants, each possessing an undivided one-half interest in Plat 5, Lot 110. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 5. Both are co-trustees and co-beneficiaries of Lot 110 in accordance with their responsibilities to the Frank C. Payne Trust. Located on Plat 5, Lot 110 is a well and pumping system that supplies water to Clifton's marina and dock, known as Payne's Dock. Id. at ¶ 3. Payne's Dock is operated by Clifton as his principal source of income. Id. The water being supplied to Payne's Dock is used for both drinking water and for washing off boats docked at the marina. Id. While Clifton is the sole owner and operator of Payne's Dock, Carole owns abutting property to Plat 5, Lot 110. Answer to Am. Compl. ¶ 4. The abutting property is Plat 5, Lot 111. Am. Compl. ¶ 4. Carole owns Payne's 1614 Realty, LLC, a limited liability company that operates Payne's Harborview Inn on Plat 5, Lot 111. Id. Carole is the exclusive owner of Plat 5, Lot 111. Am. Compl. ¶ 4.
The parties' interests in Lot 110 are restricted by an Agreement to Restrict Development Rights (Agreement or the Agreement) which was signed by both Clifton and Carole in a competent capacity.  Id. at ¶ 5. The relevant terms of the Agreement for the purposes of this dispute pertain to the restrictions posed by paragraph 6 of the Agreement. Id. The relevant portion of paragraph 6 as found in the Agreement reads:
"…the use of [lot 110] is restricted so that the same shall not be developed in any way other than for the placement of other wells on the lot, and structures and equipment in order to assure the quality of the water from the present well and any future wells on the lot." Am Comp. ¶ 5; see Ex. A of Pl.'s Am. Compl.
The controversy in this suit stems from Clifton's allegation that Carole has "developed"  and used Plat 5, Lot 110 for purposes otherwise not allowed in the Agreement. Am. Compl. ¶ 6. In turn, Clifton seeks a declaration of his rights under the Agreement and an injunction to force his sister from using Plat 5, Lot 110 in any way not allowed by the Agreement. See Am. Compl. 4.
In October 2010, in order to operate Payne's Harborview Inn on Plat 5, Lot 111, Carole applied for and received a special use permit from the Town's Zoning Board of Review. The special use permit allowed Carole to open and run a restaurant and bar at the aforementioned Payne's Harborview Inn. Payne v. Town of New Shoreham, 2013 WL 3835909, at *2; Am. Compl. ¶ 12. No appeal was taken by Clifton from the Town's Zoning Board of Review's decision as the Town's Zoning Board of Review's decision only applied to Plat 5, Lot 111 which is in the exclusive control of Carole. Payne v. Town of New Shoreham, 2013 WL 3835909, at *2. In June 2011, the Town's Planning Board issued a decision approving landscaping and exterior changes to Plat 5, Lot 111, to include the placement of a row of boulders along the border shared by the jointly-owned Plat 5, Lot 110 and Carole's owned Plat 5, Lot 111. Id. The boulders clearly marked the boundary between the two parcels of land as well as acting as a hazard when crossing between the two lots. Id.
In 2012, Carole sought a ruling from the Town's Planning Board so as to modify their original June 2011 decision. Id. The modification would allow for the removal of the boulders that clearly marked the boundary between Carole's exclusively-held property on Plat 5, Lot 111 and the co-owned Plat 5, Lot 110. Carole's request was granted by the Town over Clifton's objection. Id. At a bench trial on October 27, 2014, Carole cited that she wanted to remove the previously placed boulders for aesthetic purposes. The modified decision allowed Carole to "remove the boulders and instead install fences, [different] boulders, or other obstructions to prevent vehicles from driving within 20 feet of the wells on Lots 111 and 110." Id. Today, Carole does not operate Payne's Harborview Inn as a restaurant and bar, nor has Carole ever erected any other type of obstruction to divide her lot and the jointly-held lot.
Following the Town's Zoning Board of Review's refusal to overturn the modification, Clifton filed an Amended Complaint in Superior Court which sought to "(1) declare the Planning Board's decision void; (2) declare the Town's zoning ordinance void to the extent that it permits more than advisory opinions from the Planning Board; and (3) enjoin Carole from using Lot 110 in any manner that is inconsistent with the Agreement." Id. at *3.
The uses of Plat 5, Lot 110 that Clifton wanted to enjoin Carole from performing are any purposes not specifically allowed for by the Agreement. Clifton seeks to enjoin Carole from placing port-a-johns, dumpsters, wedding tents, automobiles, and other things of that nature on the subject Lot. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. At the October 27, 2014 bench trial, Carole admitted that oil trucks use the property in question to deliver oil to Payne's Harborview Inn on the adjacent property and further admits to "occasionally…pitching a tent…or having an occasional port-a-john or car parked" on Plat 5, Lot 110. Payne v. Town of New Shoreham, 2013 WL 3835909, at *9. Carole's admitted past uses of Plat 5, Lot 110 serve as the crux for the present suit as they raise the genuine issue of whether Carole has violated the terms of the Agreement via her past uses of Plat 5, Lot 110.
Summarily, Clifton then moved for summary judgment pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 56 against all of the named defendants on August 31, 2012. Id. at *3. On November 8, 2012, Carole and her company filed an objection to Clifton's Motion for Summary Judgment. Id. This Court agreed with Carole and denied Clifton's Motion for Summary Judgment on July 18, 2013 concluding,
"that the resolution of [Clifton's] claims against Carole and Payne's 1614 Realty would be inappropriate at this time because the determination of whether a party has breached its contractual obligations is typically a question of fact best decided by the jury. Accordingly, this Court denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment." Id. at *10.
Following the resolution of the dispositive issues, Clifton and Carole/Payne's 1614 Realty, LLC continued discussions regarding the fate of Plat 5, Lot 110. On October 27, 2014, during the bench trial, the issues came to a head with Clifton filing his pre-trial memorandum on October 27, 2014 and Carole/Payne's 1614 Realty, LLC filing theirs on the same date. This case turns on whether or not Carole's actions constituted a violation of the Agreement and, if so, whether an injunction is the appropriate remedy.
First and foremost, Plat 5, Lot 110 is subject to the Agreement. Both parties agree on that issue. The section of the Agreement relevant to the present controversy states, "…the use of [lot 110] is restricted so that the same shall not be developed in any way other than for the placement of other wells on the lot, and structures and equipment in order to assure the quality of the water from the present well and any future wells on the lot." Am. Compl. ¶ 5; see Ex. A of Pl.'s Am. Compl. ¶ 6.
Clifton avers that Carole has not acted in accordance with the Agreement as she has allowed wedding tents, port-a-johns, automobiles, dumpsters, oil trucks, and other objects to be parked, placed, or otherwise used on Plat 5, Lot 110. Clifton argues that those aforementioned uses do not conform to the intended purpose of Plat 5, Lot 110, which is for the development of other wells and structures in order to assure the purity of the water contained in the well on that site. Alternatively, Clifton contends that Carole is using Plat 5, Lot 110 for purposes other than what is agreed to in writing pursuant to the Agreement, which is for the placement of other wells on the subject Lot.
In light of the language of the Agreement, Clifton argues that the use of Plat 5, Lot 110 is limited to a singular purpose—for the placement of other wells on that lot. Simply put, Clifton believes that a violation of the Agreement occurs when either he or Carole uses Plat 5, Lot 110 for any use other than for the placement of wells on the jointly-held piece of property.
In the alternative, Clifton makes the argument that Carole has "developed" Plat 5, Lot 110 in violation of the Agreement. Using the Town's Zoning Ordinance and the Rhode Island General Laws, "development" or "developed" is defined as "[t]he construction, reconstruction, conversion, structural alteration, relocation, or enlargement of any structure; any mining, excavation, landfill or land disturbance; or any change in use, or alteration or extension of the use, of land." Clifton avers that Carole's uses of the subject property constitutes a "change in use, or alteration . . . of the use, of land" and in turn a "development" and a violation of the Agreement. Sec. 45-24-31(20); New Shoreham Zoning Ordinance § 202(A)(51). In sum, Clifton, pursuant to § 9-30-2, is seeking declaratory relief for his rights under the Agreement, attorney's fees, and to enjoin Carole from using Plat 5, Lot 110 in any manner which does not comport with the Agreement.
Conversely, Carole avers that although she places tents, port-a-johns, etc. on Plat 5, Lot 110, those activities do not amount to her having "developed" the Lot in violation of the Agreement. She argues that her position on the verbiage of the Agreement is correct by citing to the Town's Zoning Ordinance and the Rhode Island General Laws which define "development" and "developed" as "[t]he construction, reconstruction, conversion, structural alteration, relocation, or enlargement of any structure; any mining excavation, landfill or land disturbance; or any change in use, or alteration or extension of the use, of land." Sec. 45-24-31(20); New Shoreham Zoning Ordinance § 202(A)(51). Since she is the co-owner of Plat 5, Lot 110, she asserts that she is allowed to use the subject property for the very benign, non-developmental purposes she has been using it for and has summarily not violated the Agreement.
"Agreement" Rights under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act
1 Standard of Review
The General Laws of Rhode Island empower this Court with jurisdiction to construe contract rights:
"Any person interested under a deed, will, written contract, or other writings constituting a contract, or whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract, or franchise, may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the instrument, statute, ordinance, contract, or franchise and obtain a declaration of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder." Sec. 9-30-2. Exet ...