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Arnold v. Arnold

Superior Court of Rhode Island

May 14, 2015

JAMES H. ARNOLD, SANDRA B. ARNOLD, JONATHAN ARNOLD, and ELINOR ST. JOHN ARNOLD, in her capacity as Trustee of the Lemuel H. and Elinor St. John Arnold Trust Agreement
v.
THOMAS L. ARNOLD, JR. individually and in his capacity as Trustee of the THOMAS L. ARNOLD, JR. TRUST and LILLIAN B. ARNOLD individually and in her capacity as Trustee of the LILLIAN B. ARNOLD TRUST

For Plaintiff: Kelly M. Fracassa, Esq.

For Defendant: Joseph V. Cavanagh, III, Esq. William R. Landry, Esq.

DECISION

TAFT-CARTER, J.

This case is before the Court for decision following a non-jury trial on a Complaint relating to a property dispute between Plaintiffs-James H. Arnold, Sandra B. Arnold, Jonathan Arnold, and Elinor St. John Arnold, in her capacity as Trustee of the Lemuel H. and Elinor St. John Arnold Trust Agreement (Plaintiffs)-and Defendants-Thomas L. Arnold, Jr.[1] and Lillian B. Arnold, individually and in their capacities as trustees of their respective trusts (Defendants). Plaintiffs and Defendants had previously reached an agreement to settle and end pending litigation relating to this property dispute. A Consent Order was entered by the Court on July 30, 2010. On June 13, 2012, Plaintiffs filed the instant four-count Complaint in Washington County Superior Court, seeking interpretation of the Consent Order, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief. In response, Defendants filed a counter-claim seeking a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and attorney fees, as well as alleging breach of contract.

I

Facts and Travel

Having reviewed the Joint Statement of Undisputed Facts (JSUF) and the evidence presented by both parties at trial, the Court makes the following findings of fact.

Plaintiffs and Defendants are neighbors in an area in the Town of Charlestown known as "Arnolda." JSUF ¶ 1. Arnolda consists of a small collection of summer homes on the northern shore of Charlestown Pond or Ninigret Pond (the Pond) and named after the Arnold family, its original settlers. Id. Plaintiffs are co-owners of real property located in Arnolda on the northern shore of the Pond described as Lot 24 on Charlestown Tax Assessor's Plat 7 and known as "the Lighthouse Property." Id. Defendants own real property described as Lot 31-2 on Tax Assessor's Plat 7 (Lot 31-2). Id. at ¶ 4.

In August of 2007, Plaintiffs initiated the first of what ultimately have become three consolidated civil actions currently pending in Superior Court concerning the Lighthouse Property. Id. at ¶¶ 2, 7. The first action, Arnold, et al. v. Mahony, et al., C.A. No. WC-2007-0505 (the Mahony Action), was brought against defendants Walter B. Mahony, III, Barbara Mahony Kent, and Robert Mahony-three siblings who then owned Lot 23, which is situated between the Lighthouse Property and the Pond. Id. at ¶ 3. In October 2008, Plaintiffs initiated a second action, Arnold, et al. v. Arnold, C.A. No. WC-2008-0826 (TL Arnold Action), this time against Defendants herein. Id. at ¶ 4. Both of these actions concern the Lighthouse Property's access to its floating, seasonal dock at the shore of the Pond (the Lighthouse Dock). Id. at ¶¶ 4, 6. More specifically, the two actions arose out of a dispute over the scope and nature of the rights conferred in the original deed that created the Lighthouse Property by conveying Lot 24 to members of the Arnold family.[2] Id. at ¶ 11.

The Mahony Action and the TL Arnold Actions were consolidated. Id. at ¶ 12. The consolidated actions were the subject of a non-jury trial that commenced on July 26, 2010. Id. After the second day of trial, the Court, counsel, and parties agreed to suspend the proceedings while the parties attempted to work out settlement terms. Id. During the negotiations relating to the contested issues, the parties discussed the location and size of the right-of-way and Lighthouse Dock and walked the site to ensure that the evolving terms of the working agreement accurately tracked the field conditions. Id. at ¶ 14. On July 30, 2010, the parties reached an agreement and entered into a Consent Order to settle both actions. Id. at ¶ 15.

It is undisputed that the Consent Order was intended to resolve all differences between the parties with respect to the easements (express, implied, and prescriptive) benefiting the real estate known as the Lighthouse Property over real estate known as Lot 23 and Lot 31-2 on the Town of Charlestown Tax Assessor's Plat 7. Id. at ¶ 1. A term of the Consent Order required the parties to dismiss with prejudice all claims and counterclaims in the consolidated actions. Consent Order § 16. The parties now dispute several clauses of the Consent Order.

In their Complaint, Plaintiffs ask this Court to (1) declare and adjudicate that Plaintiffs have the right under the easement established in the Consent Order to exit the strict fifteen-foot wide easement to turn around vehicles launching and retrieving boats and ask this Court to enter a permanent injunction ordering Defendants to remove a fence that is currently outlining the perimeters of the easement; (2) enter a mandatory permanent injunction ordering Defendants to reinstall the courtesy gate as it existed in 1988; and (3) declare and adjudicate that Plaintiffs have the right to install posts on the floating dock.

Defendants' counterclaim (1) seeks a declaratory judgment in Defendants' favor; (2) alleges breach of the Consent Order; (3) seeks an injunction enjoining Plaintiffs from accepting a final definitive plan and executing a stipulation of dismissal; and (4) asks this Court to award Defendants attorneys' fees and costs.

The Court conducted a one-day non-jury trial on July 16, 2014. James H. Arnold testified for the Plaintiffs, and Lillian B. Arnold testified for the Defendants.

A

Testimony of Plaintiff James H. Arnold

James Arnold has been a seasonal resident of the Lighthouse Property in Charlestown, Rhode Island his entire life. Tr. at 7, July 16, 2014. From 1978 until July of 2010, James Arnold participated in and observed boats being launched from the Lighthouse Property into the water at the Lighthouse Dock. Id. at 21, 23; Ex. 62 (location boat was retrieved from 1978 to 2010). During this period, the boats were launched from a boat trailer attached to a motor vehicle. Tr. at 21. The launch required a three-point turn by the motor vehicle due to the configuration of the area. Id. at 20-21. Every time he launched the boat this maneuver was required. Id. at 23. Over the years, different vehicles were used to launch the boat, all requiring the maneuver. Id. at 21.

Currently, James Arnold owns a seventeen-foot boat trailer that holds a fourteen-foot skiff boat. Id. Prior to the relocation of the Lighthouse Dock, Defendants installed chains in the area where Plaintiffs would make the three-point turn. Id. at 26; Exs. 56-58. Mr. Arnold testified that "[he] tried to do a three-point turn into the location of what's the current dock and it was too tight" because of these chains. Tr. at 26. After the chains were installed, he contacted the Defendants concerning this issue. The Defendants agreed to remove a tree which blocked the right-of-way and move one of the chain posts. Id. at 27. Despite these accommodations, it was impossible to maneuver even the smallest vehicle. Id. James Arnold testified that the fences outlining the Launching and Retrieval Easement keep him from being able to make the three-point turn necessary to launch the boat. Id. at 31. He explained that the three-point turn was necessary to launch the boat because he is required to "back the trailer into the water to deposit or pick up the boat." Id. at 32.

In 2012, after the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) approved the relocation of the Lighthouse Dock, a chain fence was installed in the intersection of Lot 23 and Lot 31-2 on the Launching and Retrieval Easement. Id. at 29-30; see Exs. 7, 55. To Mr. Arnold's knowledge, this chain fence was installed by Peter Mahony (owner of Lot 23). Tr. at 30. The effect of the installation ended his ability to launch and retrieve boats. James Arnold explained that he could not "get around [that curve] with a vehicle of any sort and a boat trailer." Id. at 31. The configuration prevented anyone from circumventing the corner. Id. at 33; see Ex. 86. He had not raised any objections to the fences that were depicted in the DiPrete Engineering Plan (that was submitted to CRMC) because he did not realize that the fences would extend to the shore. Id. at 84; see Ex. 5.

James Arnold testified that he was familiar with the terms of the Consent Order and he was present during the negotiations. Tr. at 84. He understood the terms of the Consent Order at the time it was entered. At the time he agreed to the terms of the Consent Order, he knew that the fifteen-foot width of the Launching and Retrieval Easement would be insufficient to make the necessary three-point turn. Id. Mr. Arnold did, however, negotiate other issues involving boat launching space, including the widening of the width of the cleared space from eight feet to ten feet to ensure his ability to launch the boat. Id. at 66-67. Notwithstanding, the negotiations did not include discussions about the necessity to have greater than a fifteen-foot wide area to complete a three-point turn. He presumed that Plaintiffs "would continue to do what [they] had done for the previous 31 years, which would be to do a three-point turn and then back into the water." Id. at 33-34. This presumption was not addressed during the Consent Order negotiations. Id. at 85-86. Without the ability to navigate the three-point turn, he was unable to back his vehicle and trailer down the Launching and Retrieval Easement. Id. at 34, 40; Ex. 87 (video depicting inability to maneuver vehicle and trailer). No video or photography of any attempt to negotiate the easement with a smaller tractor, trailer, or boat was presented at trial, nor has he attempted to use the option of a front-end hitch. Tr. at 74-75, 103. Since the fence was erected, as shown in Exhibits 86 and 58, Mr. Arnold has not launched boats on the Launching and Retrieval Easement. Id. at 45.

Mr. Arnold also described the history of the post and chain device that was installed by Harriet Arnold prior to the entry of the Consent Order. This post and chain device began as a chain hooked to a tree that extended across the right-of-way then hooked into a post. To the left of the post was a courtesy gate. Id; see Ex. 41. This courtesy gate was an area approximately four feet wide that enabled people to walk around rather than walk under the chain. Tr. at 45. The courtesy gate was installed to ensure that the Lighthouse Property occupants did not have to stoop under the wire when they walked down to the dock. Id. at 47. After 2010, the post and chain device no longer includes a walk-around gate. Id. at 49-50. This change affects his 90-year-old stepmother who now has to bend down under the wire. Id. at 50. Defendants refused any request to install the courtesy gate. I ...


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