128 P.3d 725 (Alaska 2006), S-11647, Price v. Eastham

Docket Nº:S-11647.
Citation:128 P.3d 725
Opinion Judge:FABE, Justice.
Party Name:Thomas E. PRICE, Jr., Appellant, v. Mike EASTHAM, Veldon "Spud" Dillon, Lorraine Templeton, Bruce Turkington, Lee Krumm, La Velle Dillon, Bob Fenex, Carol Fenex, Bruce Willard, Linda Willard, Butch Bullard, Gordon Grebe, Diane Grebe, Eric Overson, Sam Matthews, Nancy Matthews, Ray Kranich, Eilene Wythe, Jack Alexander, Sue Alexander, Rick Alexander
Attorney:Thomas E. Price, Jr., pro se. Michael Hough, Homer, for Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before : BRYNER, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, FABE, and CARPENETI, Justices.
Case Date:February 03, 2006
Court:Supreme Court of Alaska
 
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Page 725

128 P.3d 725 (Alaska 2006)

Thomas E. PRICE, Jr., Appellant,

v.

Mike EASTHAM, Veldon "Spud" Dillon, Lorraine Templeton, Bruce Turkington, Lee Krumm, La Velle Dillon, Bob Fenex, Carol Fenex, Bruce Willard, Linda Willard, Butch Bullard, Gordon Grebe, Diane Grebe, Eric Overson, Sam Matthews, Nancy Matthews, Ray Kranich, Eilene Wythe, Jack Alexander, Sue Alexander, Rick Alexander, Reed Alexander, Dave Sanders, Shirley Sanders, Greg McCullough, Lloyd Moore, Penny Moore, Tammy Hagan, Chuck Hagan, Kate Mitchell, Ben Mitchell, Ronnie Morrison, Barb Hrenchir, Mike Hrenchir, Gus Weber, Rita Weber, Bob Simcoe, Mark Jacobs, Barb Jacobs, Sharon Thompson, Rick Thompson, Fred Thompson, Connie Thompson, Mike Devaney, Rick Anderson, Dave Weber, Mark Robl, Terry Robl, Toras Fisk, Dave Boone, Marasha Boone, George Eschin, Jim Bills, Mike O'Malley, Joe O'Malley, Bill Markel, Gordon Berg, Floyd Newkirk, Karl Horst, Robert Pelky, Robert Plymire, Don Blackwell, Valda Ziemelis, Randy Whitehorn, Connie Whitehorn, Willie Bishop, Hans Albertson, Bill Sampson, Mike Arno, Allen Englebretson, Rodney McLay, Jim Spencer, Jimmy Spencer, Joe Wright, Jason Kinnard, Amy Kinnard, Sam Wright, Paul Budge, Brian Bellamy, Rick Wise, Nathan Wise, John Wise, Jacob Wise, Marty Wise, Jake Ellyson, Carol Ellyson, Bill Sheldon, Leroy Cabana, Sr., Doris Cabana, Larry Cabana, Dawn Cabana, and Scott Connelly, Appellees.

No. S-11647.

Supreme Court of Alaska

Feb. 3, 2006

Rehearing Denied April 27, 2006.

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Thomas E. Price, Jr., pro se.

Michael Hough, Homer, for Appellees.

Before : BRYNER, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, FABE, and CARPENETI, Justices.

OPINION

FABE, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

In Price v. Eastham (Price I), we held that a public prescriptive easement had been established and remanded the case to the superior court for a determination of the easement's scope. 1 In Price I, we discussed the question of scope in some detail, remarking that "[c]ourts have restricted the scope of prescriptive easements significantly to limit the burden on the servient estate" 2 and suggesting that the superior court was "free to impose restrictions upon the easement consistent with the Restatement (Third) [of Property: Servitudes] ... including ... limiting use to certain seasons, prescribing the width of the easement, and specifying the precise uses that may be made of the easement." 3

Upon remand, the superior court issued an order stating that the easement was to be sixteen feet in width and including a corresponding legal description. Because the order does not satisfy Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) and therefore does not permit meaningful review, 4 we remand for a determination of the precise scope of the easement in light of this opinion. We additionally affirm the superior court's refusal to condition the scope of the easement upon approval of a modification to Price's Farm Conservation Plan.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

This case concerns the scope of an easement along a seismic trail crossing the property of Thomas E. Price. The trail was used without incident for many years (since at least 1956) until the late 1990s when trail traffic increased to the point of interfering with Price's quiet enjoyment of his land. Price posted the trail with "No Trespassing" signs in the winter of 1998-99. He replaced the signs each time unknown persons removed them. A group of snowmachine drivers eventually sued Price to settle the dispute. 5

In its February 9, 2000 decision, the superior court found that a right-of-way existed under 43 U.S. C. § 932, Revised Statute (RS) 2477 and, in the alternative, that a prescriptive easement existed over Price's property. 6

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The RS 2477 issue had not been raised by the parties at trial. 7 Regarding the scope of the RS 2477 right-of-way, the superior court stated only the general direction of the trail; clarified that it may be used for any purpose consistent with public travel; and declared its width to be "that width established by the traditional use of the trail, but in no place is the right of way narrower than is safe for two snowmachines to pass each other, nor wider than the original width of the seismic trail."

In Price I, we held that the superior court's failure to give the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard at trial on the RS 2477 issue violated due process rights and we therefore reversed the superior court's finding of an RS 2477 right-of-way. 8 But we concluded that a public prescriptive easement had been established over Price's property. 9 Since the only relevant discussion of the easement's scope by the superior court concerned the RS 2477 right-of-way, we remanded the case to the trial court to establish the scope of the prescriptive easement. 10 In so doing, we cited to sections 4.1 and 4.10 of the Restatement (Third) of Property: Servitudes, discussed the range of relevant factors, and provided case law to guide the inquiry upon remand. 11

After the hearing on remand, the superior court issued an order consisting of a single sentence stating that the easement was to be sixteen feet wide and containing a legal description of its general direction including the start and end points. Price now appeals.

III. DISCUSSION

The most important of Price's arguments on appeal is his complaint that the trial court failed to comply with the requirement of Civil Rule 52(a) that the superior court's order contain specific findings of fact and conclusions of law to permit meaningful review. 12 A superior court's findings are sufficiently "clear and explicit" to satisfy Civil Rule 52(a) if they resolve all critical areas of dispute in the case and are sufficiently detailed to allow for meaningful appellate review. 13 In particular, the superior court must provide findings sufficient to give a clear understanding of the grounds upon which it reached its decision. 14

In our conclusion in Price I, we suggested that the superior court was "free to impose restrictions on the easement consistent with the Restatement (Third) and this decision, including, for example, limiting use to certain seasons, prescribing the width of the easement, and specifying the precise use that may be made of the easement." 15 The order issued by the superior court makes no reference to any limitations to be placed on the easement nor does it explain its reasoning in these terms.

Appellees argue that a common sense reading of the record supports the superior court's order and that a "precise" delineation of the easement was in fact provided by the superior court in its provisions as to width and length of the easement. But in Price I we provided guidance on the types of limitations to be considered by the superior court. Unfortunately, the conclusory nature of the superior court's finding is insufficient for us to determine whether the superior court meaningfully considered restrictions on the easement scope. Moreover, Price's evidentiary showing in the hearing on remand raises the question whether appellees are attempting to change the way they are using the easement. Because a change in the use of a prescriptive easement could significantly affect the scope of the easement, we now

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discuss the legal principles and types of facts required to determine whether appellees' present use of the trail is in line with the use that established the prescriptive easement in the first place. 16

A. It Was Error for the Superior Court To Fail To Make Findings Sufficient To Allow Meaningful Review of its Reasoning Concerning the Precise Scope of the Easement.

In its decision of February 9, 2000, the superior court acknowledged the basic question that drives this case: what is the proper response when a public prescriptive easement is properly established by a relatively small number of people but is subsequently subject to a dramatic increase in the numbers of those who wish to use it?

This question implicates two separate inquiries: (1) how to delineate the scope of a prescriptive easement at the moment of perfection; and (2) whether a given change or expansion in the scope of that easement is permissible. The two inquiries are inseparable because the original scope of the easement must be fully understood Before the second inquiry may begin. The second inquiry requires a comparison be made between the uses made of the easement when it was perfected and the proposed new use. 17

In Price I, we provided guidance to the superior court on both inquiries. 18 We began by noting that "[b]ecause an easement directly affects ownership rights in the servient tenement, judicial delineation of the extent of an easement by prescription should be undertaken with great caution." 19 In citing this language, we echoed the language of section 4.10 of the Restatement that urges a delicate balance be struck between the needs of the easement beneficiary and the owner of the servient estate. 20

Regarding the first inquiry, the Restatement directs that a prescriptive easement's scope should be determined by the nature of the adverse use that led to its creation in the first place. 21 In Price I, we cited the Restatement provision stating that the focus of the inquiry should be placed on the servient estate owner's reasonable expectations. 22 In particular, the inquiry must consider what the servient estate owner...

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