CHARLES E. MARTIN AND NICOLE J. MARTIN
GLEN A. WILSON AND VALERIE A. WILSON
M. Fracassa, Esq. For Plaintiff:
Charles F. Reilly, Esq. For Defendant:
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.
Facts and Travel
following facts are adduced from the testimony and exhibits
introduced during trial before this Court.
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.)
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." 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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
Duhamel, registered civil engineer and land surveyor, also
testified at trial.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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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
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.
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.)
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.
Standard of Review
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)).
Parol Evidence Rule
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.
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 ...