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Martin v. Wilson

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Washington

October 3, 2018


          Kelly M. Fracassa, Esq. For Plaintiff:

          Charles F. Reilly, Esq. For Defendant:


          TAFT-CARTER, J.

         This matter is before the Court for Decision following a jury waived trial. This case involves a dispute between neighbors over the access and use of an eighteen foot wide Right-of-Way Easement in a Subdivision, known as "North County Estates." The Plaintiffs Charles E. Martin and Nicole J. Martin (collectively the Martins) seek injunctive relief requiring the Defendants Glen A. Wilson and Valerie A. Wilson (collectively the Wilsons) to refrain from obstructing their access to the Right-of-Way Easement and remove a stockade fence placed along the boundary of Lots 3 and 4 and remove the stone wall placed opposite the Martins' current driveway entrance. In their Counterclaim, the Defendants request a declaratory judgment with respect to the rights of the parties to the Right-of-Way Easement, and injunctive relief requiring the Plaintiffs to refrain from encroaching beyond the permitted use of their driveway. The Defendants also seek to quiet title to the property and allege one count of ongoing trespass to land. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14.

         I Facts and Travel

         The following facts are adduced from the testimony and exhibits introduced during trial before this Court.

         North County Estates is an eight lot subdivision located on Kingstown Road, Route 138, Richmond, Rhode Island. The property originally owned by William and Anna Rzepecki was conveyed to Midwestern Homes, Inc. (Midwestern Homes) on February 13, 1995. (Deed recorded in Book 98 at Page 494; Undisputed Facts 1.)

         Each lot in the Subdivision has frontage on Route 138. The lots, however, do not have access to Route 138 because of conditions on the land. As a result, an eighteen-foot Right-of-Way Easement was included on the Plan for North County Estates. (Ex. 63.) The Right-of-Way Easement was placed over a twenty-foot common driveway on Lots 3, 4 and 5. On January 24, 1995, Midwestern Homes conveyed to itself this Easement. The Easement was simultaneously recorded in the Land Evidence Records for the Town of Richmond with a Record Plan for North County Estates (the Plan). (Defs.' Ex. B, Book 100, page 634; Undisputed Facts 3, 5; Slides 118B and 119A of Map 168.) The stated purpose of the Easement was for accessing "adjacent lots (hereafter created) for subsurface disposal systems, drainage for or any similar purpose deemed by the grantor to be necessary and convenient."[1] Id. Slide 118B of Map 168- referenced in the Warranty Deeds-depicts only the eight subdivided lots without reference to the Right-of-Way Easements depicted in Slide 119A of Map 168.

         On October 29, 1996, the Wilsons purchased Lot 4 in the North County Estates Subdivision from Midwestern Homes. (Tr. 217-18, Jan. 9 and 10, 2018.) Lot 4 is adjacent to Lot 3. On May 31, 2013, Lot 3 was purchased by the Martins. (Tr. 4.) Lot 3 is situated at the top of a steep hill with the remaining southerly portion of the property is mainly flat. (Tr. 4; 21.). The property consists of heavy woodlands, wetlands, and other obstructions. (Tr. 16; 93.) At the time the Martins purchased Lot 3, the driveway was in the shape of a semicircle with two points of access on the Right-of-Way. (Tr. 26.) The Martins used both points of access to enter and exit their property until the Wilsons erected a stockade fence in 2015. (Tr. 28.)

         In addition to the stockade fence running southerly along Lot 4's boundary extending from the border of Lot 7 down to the entrance of the Martins' property, the Wilsons prevented the Martins from accessing portions of the Right-of-Way Easement by erecting a chain link fence; building a partial stone wall directly across from the entrance to the Martins' property; and placing an orange snow fence along the boundary of Lot 4 from the northern end of the entrance to the Martins' property to the southern end of the branch of the "20' Wide Right of Way Easement" that runs across Lot to Lot as shown on Slide 119A. (Undisputed Facts 9.)

         Access to the driveway was crucial to the Martins because one of their children is severely disabled, requiring a special school bus to transport him to school. (Tr. 35-36.) The school bus transports their child five days a week, every month of the year except August. (Tr. 31.) Mrs. Martin explained that the school bus would park in the Martins' driveway to pick up the child. (Tr. 35-36.) The bus would then back out onto the common driveway system in a southerly direction, exiting to Route 138 in a forward facing manner. (Tr. 35-36.) After the Wilsons' obstruction of the common driveway system, the school bus had to change the method in which it picked up and dropped off the disabled child. (Tr. 31; 36.) At times, the school bus was required to back down the common driveway, in a backward facing direction, until it reached Route 138 or one of the branches of another easement off of the common driveway, to turn around. (Tr. 32.) Mrs. Martin described her observation of the bus aid, who would direct the driver by standing at the rear of the bus and guide it into a branch of another easement to turn around. (Tr. 96.) She observed the bus attempt this turnaround procedure multiple times. (Tr. 96-97.) On one occasion, Mrs. Martin watched as the bus slid down the easement on ice eventually becoming stuck in a snow bank. Id.

         Jennifer McHugh, the bus attendant for First Student, also testified at trial. Ms. McHugh testified that she was employed by First Student and was the bus attendant for the Martins' disabled son in 2015 and 2016. (Tr. 147.) She explained that the bus would normally drive to the Martins' driveway entrance using the Right-of-Way Easement. (Tr. 148.) The bus would use the disputed portion of the Right-of-Way Easement in order to turn the bus around once it reached the Martins' driveway in order to safely pick up the Martins' son. (Tr. 148.) The bus would then exit the driveway in a forward facing manner. (Tr. 148.) This pattern was disrupted when the Wilsons began parking their cars in the common driveway at the entrance to the Martins' driveway. (Tr. 31-32.) The Court finds Mrs. Martin and Ms. McHugh's testimony credible.

         Christopher Duhamel, registered civil engineer and land surveyor, also testified at trial.[2]Mr. Duhamel oversaw the engineering and land survey design of the North County Estates Subdivision. (Tr. 103-104.) Mr. Duhamel, as the supervising engineer, was involved in the zoning permitting, planning board permitting, and environmental permitting. (Tr. 104; 107.) Mr. Duhamel testified that he designed the North County Estates Subdivision so that each individual lot making up the Subdivision complied with the zoning requirements of the Town of Richmond, the Planning Board, and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Id. Mr. Duhamel explained that the existence of freshwater wetlands on the Subdivision required compliance and environmental permitting with DEM to protect these wetlands. (Tr. 104.) In addition to approval of the Plan (Exhibit 63) depicting the proposed Right-of-Way Easement by DEM, Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) approved this Plan depicting the common driveway system Rights-of-Way. (Tr. 108.)

         Mr. Duhamel testified that in designing the ingress and egress access points for each lot, private Rights-of-Way were created to avoid impacting the protected wetlands. (Tr. 105.) In designing Lot 3, Mr. Duhamel stated that the ingress and egress options were limited due to the placement of the septic system, wetlands, buffer zones, and the steep grade of land which would result in a larger environmental impact to the property. (Tr. 120.) Mr. Duhamel noted that buffer zones played a "very strong role" in the planning and design of the Subdivision. (Tr. 114-115.) Mr. Duhamel explained that the DEM buffer zone is required to preserve the area in its natural state. (Tr. 114.) He also explained that each lot's frontage on Route 138 consists largely of wetlands. (Tr. 103-105.)

         Mr. Duhamel explained that the driveway system was labeled "Proposed Right of Way Easement" and implemented a twenty-foot Right-of-Way with an eighteen-foot common driveway contained within it. (Tr. 134; Ex. 63.) As depicted on Map 168, Slide 119A and as the trial evidence demonstrated, the Subdivision contains a shared driveway, proceeding in a northerly direction from Route 138 to Lot 7. This shared driveway is designated and identified as Slide 119A. (Joint Ex. 2.) When asked about Slide 119A's failure to depict driveways, Mr. Duhamel explained that this type of document does not typically show driveways, but that "the overall subdivision was designed to have access that is conducive to the lots." (Tr. 137-138; 143-144.)

         Mr. and Mrs. Wilson also testified at trial. Mrs. Wilson believes that they own the area from the Plaintiffs' driveway entrance to the rear of their property abutting Lot 7. (Tr. 160.) The Wilsons used this area to park cars and store a boat and firewood until shortly after the Martins purchased Lot 3 in May 2013. (Tr. 173.) Mrs. Wilson testified that they "maintained" the area for deliveries "so that the trucks could deliver the wood." (Tr. 173.) The Wilsons also engaged a company to remove the existing asphalt on the disputed portion of the common driveway in order to grade the land and pave this area with new asphalt. (Tr. 43-44; 174-175.) Mrs. Wilson testified that none of the prior owners of Lot 3 attempted to access the rear portion of the property. (Tr. 160.) Mrs. Wilson also testified that neither she nor her husband took any action to prevent anyone from traveling on the southerly portion of the common driveway system until approximately a year and a half after the Martins purchased Lot 3 on May 31, 2013. (Tr. 174-176.)

         Mrs. Wilson explained that the chain link fence as well as other obstructions placed at the entrance of the disputed portion of the Easement area were necessary to prevent the school bus from entering the common driveway. (Tr. 169.) This action was taken to prohibit anyone other than themselves from accessing and/or using the area southerly of the entrance to the Martins' property without the Wilsons' permission. (Undisputed Facts 10.) The obstructions prevented the school bus from picking up the Plaintiffs' seriously disabled child at their home. (Tr. 31-32; 169.) Mrs. Wilson explained, however, that the school bus pickup for children riding the bus to school occurred at the bottom of the driveway on Route 138. (Tr. 161.) Mrs. Wilson also complained that the headlights and noise from the school bus were disruptive to her husband's sleep. (Tr. 169; 180-181.)

         Mr. Wilson, a former truck driver, testified that from the time he and his wife purchased Lot 4, they maintained the southerly area of the parking lot. (Tr. 204.) Mr. Wilson explained that if he were to drive a truck through the Right-of-Way Easement, he would drive the truck in a backward facing manner up the steep Right-of-Way Easement because it is too dangerous to back down the steep Right-of-Way Easement. (Tr. 203.) Mr. Wilson testified that he was unsure as to how the trucks turned around at the base of the Right-of-Way Easement on Route 138; however, during his ownership of Lot 4, he observed other trucks following this manner of getting up and down the Right-of-Way Easement. (Tr. 203.) Mr. Wilson acknowledged that it would be difficult for a truck to back down the steep Right-of-Way Easement without the proper lighting, such as extra spotlights. (Tr. 207.)

         Justin Shay, a distinguished member of the Rhode Island Bar with expertise in the area of commercial and real estate law, testified as an expert witness. (Tr. 213-214.) Attorney Shay testified that the recorded plat map referred to in the Deed did not depict any Rights-of-Way or Easements. (Joint Ex. 1; Tr. 217.) Likewise, the deed to Lot 4 did not reference any easement or common driveway. (Tr. 217-218.) With respect to Lot 3, Attorney Shay testified that the Deed conveying Lot 3 to the prior owners of this Lot did not recite or reference any Rights-of-Way or Easements until the property was sold to the Lewandoskis on June 2, 2008. (Tr. 218-220; 222.) This Warranty Deed contained a handwritten note referencing a Right-of-Way and Easement recorded in Book 100 at Page 624. (Tr. 220.) Attorney Shay testified that this Easement created a Right-of-Way allowing access from adjacent lots not yet created, for subsurface disposal systems, drainage or any other similar purpose deemed by the grantor to be necessary and convenient. (Tr. 221.)

         Attorney Shay explained that in order to convey an easement on a parcel of land, there must be a dominant tenement and servient tenement. (Tr. 223.) Attorney Shay concluded that upon conveying the easement from Midwestern Homes to Midwestern Homes, the grant of an Easement on the Subdivision became a nullity under the Doctrine of Merger. (Tr. 223.) Attorney Shay testified that due to the extinguishment of the Easement by merger, neither Midwestern Homes nor any subsequent owner of a North County Estates Subdivision Lot possessed rights to the Easement. (Tr. 224.)

         In lieu of closing arguments, the parties were directed to submit post-trial memoranda to this Court. The Plaintiffs filed their post-trial memorandum on January 26, 2018, and the Defendants filed their memorandum on January 28, 2018. The parties summarized the testimony heard at trial in support of their request for relief. A Decision is herein rendered on the Plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief with respect to the encumbrances obstructing their access to the Right-of-Way Easement as well as the Defendants' request for declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, quiet title, and ongoing trespass to land.

         II Standard of Review

         Rule 52(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure states that "[i]n all actions tried upon the facts without a jury . . . the court shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon." Super. R. Civ. P. 52(a). Therefore, in a non-jury trial, "[t]he trial justice sits as a trier of fact as well as of law." Hood v. Hawkins, 478 A.2d 181, 184 (R.I. 1984). Consequently, "[s]he weighs and considers the evidence, passes upon the credibility of the witnesses, and draws proper inferences." Id. The trial justice need not engage in extensive analysis and discussion. Wilby v. Savoie, 86 A.3d 362, 372 (R.I. 2014). Strict compliance with the requirements of Rule 52 is not required if a full understanding of the issues may be reached without the aid of separate findings. Eagle Elec. Co, Inc. v. Raymond Constr. Co., Inc., 420 A.2d 60, 64 (R.I. 1980). Even brief findings and conclusions are sufficient as long as they address and resolve pertinent, controlling factual and legal issues. Broadley v. State, 939 A.2d 1016, 1021 (R.I. 2008). A trial justice's findings of fact will not be disturbed "'unless such findings are clearly erroneous or unless the trial justice misconceived or overlooked material evidence or unless the decision fails to do substantial justice between the parties.'" Opella v. Opella, 896 A.2d 714, 718 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Bogosian v. Bederman, 823 A.2d 1117, 1120 (R.I. 2003)).

         III Analysis

         A Parol Evidence Rule[3]

         As a threshold issue, the Defendants argue that the testimony of Christopher Duhamel and Plaintiffs' Exhibits 49, 62 and 63-depicting Deeds from Midwestern Homes to the Defendants and the Deed into Plaintiffs' predecessor in title-should be excluded under the Parol Evidence Rule because such documents are complete on their face and without ambiguity. The Defendants conclude that the meaning of these documents "should be determined without reference to extrinsic facts or aids." (Defs.' Post-Trial Mem. 8.) The Defendants assert that any attempt to vary the terms of these Exhibits by reference to the Plan recorded as Slide 119A is impermissible under the Parol Evidence Rule.

         "The parol-evidence rule provides that 'parol or extrinsic evidence is not admissible to vary, alter or contradict a written agreement.'" Filippi v. Filippi, 818 A.2d 608 (R.I. 2003) (quoting Paolella v. Radiologic Leasing Assocs., 769 A.2d 596, 599 (R.I. 2001). Rather,

"a complete written agreement merges and integrates all the pertinent negotiations made prior to or at the time of execution of the contract . . . . A document is integrated when the parties adopt the writing as 'a final and complete expression of the agreement.' Once integrated, other expressions, oral or written, that occurred prior to or concurrent with the integrated agreement are not viable terms of the ...

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