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Arnold v. Arnold

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 22, 2018

James H. Arnold et al.
v.
Thomas L. Arnold, Jr., individually and in his capacity as Trustee of the Thomas L. Arnold, Jr. Trust, et al.

          Superior Court Providence County WC 12-379 Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter

          For Plaintiffs: Kelly M. Fracassa, Esq. Attorney(s) on Appeal

          For Defendants: William R. Landry, Esq., Joseph V. Cavanagh, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Francis X. Flaherty, Associate Justice

         "Something there is that doesn't love a wall[.]"[1]Almost a century ago, the plaintiffs' predecessors in title acquired by deed an easement over the defendants' property to access the adjacent Charlestown Pond.[2] Many decades, pathways, and dock locations later, a disagreement as to the parties' property rights arose. Litigation commenced, and, eventually, after lengthy and painstaking negotiations, a settlement was reached that resulted in easements in favor of the plaintiffs. The Superior Court entered a consent order embodying the terms of the agreement. Sadly, however, the relationship between these neighboring family members did not remain harmonious.

         Yet another lawsuit was spawned when the defendants fenced the fifteen-foot-wide confines of the easement that was created by the agreement and consent order. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants' actions stymied their ability to tow boats to and from their dock because they could no longer (1) navigate the "elbow" of the right-of-way or (2) execute a three-point turn at the water's edge, thereby frustrating the purpose of the consent order and the easement. Thus, the plaintiffs initiated litigation anew to reinstate what they contended was the intended purpose of the consent order: to "pass and re-pass by vehicles * * * for the purpose of hauling, launching, or retrieving boats * * *."

         A nonjury trial, entailing a joint statement of undisputed facts, joint exhibits, and testimony from one plaintiff and one defendant, was held in the Superior Court. The plaintiffs appeal from the ensuing judgment denying their claims in whole. The defendants cross-appeal from the trial justice's denial of their request for attorneys' fees. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts[3] and Travel

         A

         The Previous Lawsuits

         In this appeal, we are called upon to put an end to a long-standing feud between distant relatives over their respective property rights.[4] The dispute centers on property located in the Arnolda section of Charlestown, an area that derives its name from the original settler and owner of much of the surrounding land, Thomas L. Arnold.[5] In 1927, Thomas conveyed Lot 24 on Charlestown Tax Assessor's Plat 7 to members of his family, creating the so-called "Lighthouse property." The deed included the following grant:

"a right of way to shore of Charlestown Pond or Bay, and the facilities of large crib dock and small boat house, and also a right of way to the ocean beach over the land of the Grantor and the privilege of building a small bath house for two families and guest not further than twenty (20) feet south of the large bath house now owned by the Grantor."

         At all times relevant to this dispute, plaintiffs owned the Lighthouse property, Lot 24. Lying east and south of the Lighthouse property and separating it from the Charlestown Pond is Lot 23, owned by the Mahony family. South of Lots 23 and 24 and fronting the pond is Lot 31-2, owned by defendants. The defendants live on the adjoining Lot 31-1. See Appendix (relevant portion of Charlestown Tax Assessor's Plat 7).

         Eventually, the scope and nature of the rights conveyed to plaintiffs in the original 1927 easement became the subject of litigation. In 2007, plaintiffs brought suit against the Mahonys, seeking "a declaration giving them the right to pass by foot or vehicle across Lot 23 en route to the Pond on alternative theories of express or prescriptive easement." Then, in 2008, plaintiffs also sued defendants in a separate action, likewise seeking "a declaration of vehicular access to Charlestown Pond across Lot 31-2 on the same alternative easement theories * * *." The Mahonys and defendants lodged trespass counterclaims against plaintiffs in those cases. At the heart of both actions was the Lighthouse property's access to its floating, seasonal dock at the shore of the pond.

         A justice of the Superior Court (the first trial justice) consolidated the cases, and a nonjury trial commenced on July 26, 2010. On the second day of trial, however, the proceedings were suspended so that the parties could attempt to negotiate a settlement. Over the course of the next three days, the parties and counsel discussed the location and size of plaintiffs' right-of-way to the pond as well as their dock. The parties and their counsel walked the site to make sure that the evolving terms of a working agreement accurately tracked the field conditions. These negotiations proved fruitful, ultimately resulting in an agreement, and the parties presented the first trial justice with a proposed consent order detailing the agreement's terms on July 30, 2010. After reviewing the contents of the consent order and polling each party individually to verify his or her assent to the terms of the agreement, the first trial justice approved the settlement. She applauded the parties and counsel for their difficult but successful negotiations, remarking that she had never before "witnessed this long of a settlement process while still potentially retaining the case for trial." Thereafter, the consent order was entered as an order of the Superior Court.

         B

         The Consent Order

         The consent order began:

"1. This Consent Order shall resolve, declare, and determine for all purposes the presently disputed rights, duties and obligations of the parties with respect to easements (express, implied, or prescriptive) benefiting the real estate now known as Lot 24 * * * over real estate now known as Lot 23 * * * and Lot 31-2 * * * including but not limited to any and all such easements or rights of way as they relate to Lots 23 and 31-2 as are expressed in that certain 1927 deed from Thomas L. Arnold * * *."

         The consent order then created two easements benefiting plaintiffs' property.[6] The first was the "Pedestrian / Golf Cart Easement," which would begin at the southern edge of Lot 24 and cross Lot 23, the Mahony property, and could be, under the terms of the easement, accessed by foot or a small vehicle no larger than a golf cart for the purpose of accessing and transporting supplies to the Lighthouse property's dock.

         The second, and most important, was the "Launching and Retrieval Easement" across both Lot 23 and Lot 31-2, defendants' property. The Launching and Retrieval Easement would begin at the southern edge of Lot 24 and cross Lot 23, where it would intersect with the Pedestrian / Golf Cart Easement at the bottom of Lot 23. From there, the Launching and Retrieval Easement would make a ninety-degree turn and head east across the northern boundary of Lot 31-2, ending at the shore of Charlestown Pond. The precise terms of the Launching and Retrieval Easement bear repeating in full:

"3. The 'Launching and Retrieval Easement' as used herein, shall mean a right and easement to pass and re-pass by vehicles to and from Lot 24 over Lot 23 and Lot 31-2 for the purpose of hauling, launching, or retrieving boats owned by the owners of Lot 24 not exceeding sixteen (16) feet in length to or from the Existing Lot 24 Dock or the Relocated Lot 24 Dock, as defined herein. The area in which the 'Launching and Retrieval Easement' may be exercised shall be:
"(i) with respect to passing and re-passing over Lot 31-2, that fifteen (15) foot area as shown on that Plan of Subdivision at 'Arnolda' in the Town of Charlestown prepared by Alan J. Easterbrooks, C.E. and recorded at Plat Book 12, Page 61 in the Town of Charlestown Land Evidence Records ('Subdivision Plan'), maintained as cleared, mowed grass at least ten (10) feet wide, except, however, that if the Lot 24 Dock is not relocated to the fifteen (15) foot wide area designated on the Subdivision Plan in accordance with the provisions of Section 12 hereof, then the area in which the Launching and Retrieval Easement may be exercised shall be a fifteen (15) foot wide area located in the extreme northerly and easterly portion of Lot 31-2 as will permit access to the Lot 24 Dock or Relocated Lot 24 Dock as aforesaid, noting that the same area described in this Sub-Section shall also constitute the area for the Pedestrian / Golf Cart Easement as same passes over Lot 31-2; and
"(ii) with respect to passing and re-passing over Lot 23, two track tire lanes of gravel with center grass median, total of eight feet, all as shown and set forth on the Sketch Plan to be replaced by the Definitive Plan.
"The Launching and Retrieval Easement shall not be exercised prior to April 15 or after November 12 of each year, and shall be exercised only on a 'one time in, one time out' basis with respect to boats duly maintained at the Lot 24 Dock or the Relocated Lot 24 Dock or to address an emergency such as an impending natural disaster or extraordinary circumstance threatening safety or property."

         Additionally, in connection with the establishment of the Launching and Retrieval Easement, the consent order addressed the relocation of plaintiffs' dock. The Lighthouse dock, benefiting Lot 24, in existence at the time of entry of the consent order was "located on Lot 31-2 approximately 50 ft. south of its boundary with Lot 23, which dock is a 'floating dock' approximately 8 ft. wide and 16 ft. long." The consent order, however, provided for relocation of that floating dock:

"12. The owners of Lot 31-2, with the cooperation of the owners of Lot 24, as joint applicants as necessary, shall with due diligence and in good faith cooperate in filing an application within forty-five (45) days of entry of this Consent Order with the [Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC)] for permission to relocate the Lot 24 Dock to the north of its current location to a location * * * within or as close as possible to the area of the Launching and Retrieval Easement at its eastern terminus on Lot 31-2 where same meets Charlestown Pond. * * * The cost associated with the permitting process, including any required dredging or removal of coastal vegetation, shall be borne solely by the owners of Lot 31-2. The cost to physically move the Lot 24 Dock northerly pursuant to any permission granted by CRMC shall be borne solely by owners of Lot 24."

         With respect to who could access that dock by way of the newly created easements, the consent order declared:

"6. Only the owners of Lot 24 and their houseguests shall have the right and benefit of the Pedestrian / Golf Cart Easement and the Launching and Retrieval Easement as aforesaid, and the owners of Lots 23 and 31-2 and their agents shall not impede, impair, block or hinder any part of their use thereof as aforesaid in any way, except that (i) a 'post and chain' device with a lock may be maintained on Lot 31-2, installed in or about 1988, in the location shown on The Definitive Plan, provided that a key to the same is always provided to the owners of Lot 24 for their exclusive use * * *."

         Finally, the consent order closed as follows:

"16. The parties agree to dismiss with prejudice all claims and counterclaims in the above consolidated actions, with the parties to bear their own respective court costs and attorneys' fees.
"17. This Consent Order shall be binding upon all of the parties to the above-consolidated actions, including their grantees, successors, and assigns. This Consent Order shall be recorded in the Land Evidence Records of the Town of Charlestown.
"18. Any violation of this consent order may subject the violator to contempt of court or other sanctions deemed appropriate by this Court. However, the parties agree to attempt to amicably resolve disputes hereunder in good ...

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