Saturday, March 17, 2007

Weems, et al. v. County Commissioners of Calvert County (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed March 16, 2007--Opinion by Judge Dale Cathell .

Appellants filed a declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court for Calvert County against the County Commissioners, seeking a declaration as to the westerly terminus of a public easement, a declaration as to the ownership of an area known as Leitch's Wharf, and a declaration that § 15-201 of the Calvert County Code - as it pertains to Leitch's Wharf - is unconstitutional in that the statute constitutes a taking of Appellant's property without just compensation.

After an adverse decision, Appellants raised four questions to the Court of Special Appeals, which found, in an unreported opinion, the language of the easement at issue to be ambiguous. Further, the court found that the testimony at trial, by the nature in which it was given and the failure of trial counsel to clarify the issues by connecting the testimony to the exhibits in the record, did not contain a sufficient description of the easement, as presented in that record, to resolve the ambiguity. As a result, the court found it necessary to remand the case for further proceedings and, because of its determination regarding the easement, did not resolve any of the other issues. After the remand hearing, Appellants again appealed, and this Court granted a writ of certiorari for the following two questions:

1) Whether the trial court erred in arbitarily disregarding Appellants' expert's opinion and thereafter finding that the westerly terminal of the easement granted in the 1949 Deed was located within Appellants' property.

2) Whether the trial court erred when it did not find § 15-201 of the Calvert County Code unconstitutional as applied to Appellants' property at Leitch's Wharf.

The Court reviewed two key documents to reach their determination: (1) the easement at issue, and (2) § 15-201 of the Calvert County Code. The controversial language of the easement provides:

"2. The remaining of the above mentioned parties of the first part do hereby grant a parcel or strip of ground beginning for the same at the intersection of the present County road, and the land of Thomas I. Weems and Clifton Smith, and running in a westerly direction adjacent to and through the lands of the above mentioned parties of the first part, and running with the center of the said present county road, said 30 foot strip lying 15 feet on each side at the center line thereof, and having for its westerly terminal the lands of the grantor, Lydia Leitch."

Section 15-201 of the Calvert County Code provides, in relevant part:

(a) The public shall have an easement or right-of-way over any roads or ways in Calvert County leading to . . . Leitch's Wharf . . ..

(b) The purpose for this easement or right-of-way is solely for access to the wharves and landings and enjoyment of the wharves and landings by the public.

This Court found that the language at issue in the easement (the last phrase) is not ambiguous. While confusion may exist as to who was the party of the first part, the easement being granted had its westerly boundary clearly fixed. Therefore, as relevant to the present controversy, it makes no difference who "he" was. The term "westerly" did not refer to the westerly boundary of the Leitch property; it referred to the westerly boundary of the easement. The "lands of Lydia Leitch" was, in essence, a "call" -- it defined the western boundary, which is the easement's terminus. In the case at hand, the "call" set the boundary of that property being granted by referencing the boundary of another property beyond which the lands being granted did not go. There was no dispute as to the other boundaries of the easement relevant to the instant case. This case only concerned the western boundary of the public easement and the County has no rights, under this easement, beyond that point.

In deeds granting easements, ambiguity only exists when the particular location point at issue cannot be determined; not in instances where the location point is clear from the language of the deed. If there was any ambiguity in respect to language, then, in such event, other evidence might be considered to attempt to locate the right of way. The case sub judice, however, did not require the Court to look outside the four corners of the granting document. Consequently, the Court held the relevant language of the deed of easement was not ambiguous.

The Supreme Court has remained consistent in asserting that included amongst a property owner's bundle of rights is the right to exclude others. Consistent with that assertion, this Court found it constitutionally impermissible for the government to give the public the right to use the private property of a landowner without that landowner's permission, just as it would be unconstitutional for a governmental entity to enact a statute to give the public the right to go into and reside in the private home of a citizen. The government cannot grant a license to the public to go into a homeowner's bedroom or his backyard. The legal and constitutional principals are exactly the same whether applied to a bedroom or a field, and a governmental entity may not legislatively terminate, by enactment of a statute, an individual's "right to exclude" others from their private property without providing the landowner compensation for that "taking" or without the landowner's permission.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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