Friday, March 9, 2007

White v. The Pines Community Improvement (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed March 6, 2007. Opinion by Judge Arrie W. Davis.

In this case, the Court was asked to determine the rights of individual property owners as compared with the rights of a Community Improvement Association (Pines Community Improvement Association, Inc. ("PCIA")). PCIA does NOT qualify as a homeowners' association under Real Property 11B-101, et seq. Specifically at issue were piers and certain community property. The individual lot owners claimed an easement over the piers and claimed adverse possession over certain of the community property.

"'The Pines on the Severn' (hereinafter 'The Pines') is a residential community of approximately 250 single family lots located in Arnold, Maryland that binds on two branches of Chase
Creek, a tributary of the Severn River." The specific language of the relevant deeds is set forth in great detail in the Court's opinion. In 2003, the PCIA instituted a pier management system that imposed a fee on members, and a "wet storage fee" of $15.00 per day on boats belonging to non-members in slips. Certain individual owners sued the PCIA claiming that they had easements which permitted them to use the piers. They also claimed adverse possession over certain community land. Finally, they claimed that the PCIA was equitably estopped from preventing them from using the piers. The PCIA, in turn, counterclaimed for the wet storage fees.


The Court first reviewed the relevant standard of review. Factual determinations are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard while legal conclusions are reviewed de novo.

The Court then looked at the issues in this case. After reviewing the elements for a covenant running with the land, the Court determined that there was a covenant running with the land with respect to PCIA. There was also an express easement over community land in the PCIA's deed. Any attempts to change the individual property owners' rights vis-a-vis the PCIA were unenforceable because those deeds were recorded after the original plat. "...after the delivery of the mortgage, it is beyond the mortgagor to impair or modify the estate."

Prescriptive Easements Over the Piers: The constuction of a deed is ordinarily a question of law, and thus reviewed de novo. The Court gives effect to the intention of the parties as that intention can be gleaned from the four corners of the document. Extrinisic evidence is generally not considered. In addition, common schemes are permissible in Maryland, and the recordation of an appropriate deed affords "constructive notice to all persons dealing with the property..." In this case, the grants in the individual property owners' deeds did not restrict the community property; they granted access to the realty and riparian rights. Accordingly, they were easements that ran with the land. The individual lot owners have an express (not prescriptive) easement over the piers. The Court reviewed the elements for prescriptive easements and found that, because the easements in this case were express, they could not have been prescriptive.

Those who have riparian realty can build piers, wharves, etc. that extend out into the water. However, riparian rights does not equate to ownership of riparian land. The individual property owners had riparian rights based on their easements, but the riparian land was OWNED by the PCIA. Accordingly, the PCIA owned the piers at issue, and the individual lot owners had a contractual right to use them.

Adverse Possession of Certain Community Land The Court then faced the issue of whether the individual owners had acquired some of the community land by adverse possession. To constitute adverse possession, the "possession must be actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, under claim of ownership, and continuous or uninterrupted" (citations omitted) for the statutory period of 20 years. Successive owners can "tack" their possession to meet the statutory period, but generally, the deed from the first owner to the successor must include the property at issue. One exception to this rule is when the original owner actually turns over possession to the successor owner. The Court then applied this rule to the specifics of each individual owner's claim, noting along the way that trial judges are presumed to know the law and apply it properly.

Equitable Estoppel Equitable estoppel arises when a party is precluded from exercising his rights because another "has in good faith relied upon [his] conduct, and has been led thereby to change his position for the worse and who on his part acquires some corresponding right..." Because the individual land owners and the PCIA had equal access to the land records, any reliance on any conduct that was no in accord with the land records was insufficient to establish equitable estoppel.

Wet Storage Fees The scope of an easement is determined by the conveyance. Where the conveyance is silent as to the duty to repair, the expenses are proportionately those of the easement holder. Thus, each easement holder and the land owner should all pay, as nearly as possible, their share of the use of the easement. Because the $15.00 per day wet storage fee was not reasonably anticipated to be a proportionate share of the maintenance costs, it was not an appropriate fee.

This opinion is available in PDF format.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This will be a good case to follow to the court of appeals.