Douglas v. Jackson Hole Land Tr.

Decision Date05 June 2020
Docket NumberS-19-0262,S-19-0261
Citation2020 WY 69
PartiesPATRICIA ANN DOUGLAS, as Trustee of the Patricia Ann Douglas Revocable Trust, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. JACKSON HOLE LAND TRUST, Appellee (Defendant). JACKSON HOLE LAND TRUST, Appellant (Defendant), v. PATRICIA ANN DOUGLAS, as Trustee of the Patricia Ann Douglas Revocable Trust, Appellee (Plaintiff).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Appeal from the District Court of Teton County

The Honorable Timothy C. Day, Judge

Representing Appellant Patricia Ann Douglas:

James K. Lubing and Nathan D. Rectanus, Lubing Law Group, LLC, Jackson, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee Jackson Hole Land Trust:

Kendal R. Hoopes, Yonkee & Toner, LLP, Sheridan, Wyoming.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] Jackson Hole Land Trust (JHLT) holds a conservation easement that limits the area that can be developed on Patricia Douglas' property. Ms. Douglas sought a declaration from the district court that an accessway traversing her property is not a "driveway" that should be counted toward the total developed area. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. JHLT argued that the accessway is subject to the easement's development limitation, and that it was entitled to costs and attorneys' fees under a section of the easement providing for recovery of costs incurred in enforcing its terms. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of JHLT, concluding the accessway is a driveway subject to the easement's development limitation, but declined to award it costs and attorneys' fees. Both parties timely appealed. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] The parties identify the following issues:

1. Is the accessway traversing Ms. Douglas' property a driveway subject to the conservation easement's site development limitation?
2. Do the easement terms provide for the award of costs and attorneys' fees for a declaratory judgment action?
FACTS

[¶3] In 2016, Ms. Douglas acquired 46.32 acres of land near the Snake River in Teton County, Wyoming. The property is encumbered by a conservation easement that Ms. Douglas' predecessors in interest (O'Connor)1 granted to JHLT. Beginning in late 2011, O'Connor sought county approval for two related construction projects on the property—one for construction of an accessway leading from the county road to a "development area" and the other for a "two-unit non-subdivision Planned Residential Development" within the development area.

[¶4] For the accessway project, O'Connor applied for a Grading and Erosion Control Permit (GEC Permit), a Floodplain Development Permit, and three Bridge Permits. To address the environmental impacts of the project, as required by various Teton County Land Development Regulations (LDRs), O'Connor submitted an Environmental Assessment (EA) and a Mitigation Plan with the permit applications. The county granted these permits in October 2012.

[¶5] Meanwhile, O'Connor also applied for a Planned Residential Development Permit (PRD) to construct two residential units within the development area. At the time, a county LDR required that at least 70% of the property remain "open space" after development. As a means of enforcing this requirement, the county conditioned its approval of the PRD on the grant of a conservation easement over the property to a nonprofit entity. Thus, O'Connor entered into a conservation easement agreement with JHLT and submitted it and an updated EA with his PRD application. The PRD application identifies 55,792-square-feet of "maximum site development" consisting of 18,319-square-feet of development for the "access road" and 37,473-square-feet of "remaining site development," and the EA provides an "Open Space Analysis" that removes the "proposed driveway and development area . . . from the open space acreage." The county issued O'Connor a PRD permit in January 2015.

[¶6] The easement agreement states that it was "granted in satisfaction of a requirement of the Teton County, Wyoming Land Development Regulations in effect as of the date of this Easement for approval of a [PRD] non-subdivision development permit." It limits the amount of "Site Development" that can occur on the property to 1.28 Acres, or 55,757 square feet, and defines "Site Development" as "any area of the Property, whether inside or outside of a Development Area, covered by buildings (exclusive of eaves), structures, Impervious Surfaces, porches, decks, terraces, patios, driveways, parking areas and/or corrals." A map appended to the agreement identifies the "Development Area" consisting of 5.25 acres of the property, within "which the right to residential and other structures is reserved." It also identifies an "Access Strip" consisting of 0.8 acres, in which O'Connor constructed the accessway from the county road to the development area. The map states that "All existing roads and parking areas are contained within the access strip and Development Area."

Image materials not available for display.[¶7] After Ms. Douglas acquired the property, she filed a declaratory judgment action against JHLT, seeking a declaration that the accessway constructed by O'Connor is a "road," rather than a "driveway" and thus does not constitute "Site Development" subject to the easement's 55,757-square-foot development limitation. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, with JHLT seeking a declaration "that the 'access strip' . . . constitutes 'Site Development' under the Conservation Easement." JHLT also moved to recover "costs, attorney[s'] fees, and other expenses" pursuant to Section 7.4 of the easement agreement, which provides for recovery of "the costs of enforcement of any of the terms" of the easement.

[¶8] The district court granted summary judgment in favor of JHLT and denied Ms. Douglas' motion, concluding that the accessway leading from the county road to the development area was a driveway and, thus, subject to the easement agreement's site development limitation. It reasoned that the plain meaning of "driveway" applied to the accessway. It also considered O'Connor's "PRD application documents that were contemporaneous with the creation of the conservation easement," which "reflect[ed] that the access road was considered a driveway at the time the easement was created and [] that the area occupied by that driveway was included as part of the total 'Site Development.'" The court concluded "that the preceding owners' dedication of 18,319 square feet for the access road now limits [Ms. Douglas'] remaining development of her two 10,000 square foot homes[.]"

[¶9] Despite granting summary judgment in JHLT's favor, the district court declined to award it costs and attorneys' fees. It concluded that "[a]fter reviewing Section 7 of the easement in its entirety . . . Section 7.4 allows for recovery of attorney[s'] fees and costs for actions to remedy a violation of the easement." It reasoned that "there [had] been no violation" because Ms. Douglas instituted her declaratory judgment action before "develop[ing] her property in a manner that could be deemed a violation." Instead, the declaratory judgment action merely sought "interpretation of terms of the easement."

[¶10] Ms. Douglas appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of JHLT. JHLT appealed the denial of costs and attorneys' fees and further requests that we grant it attorneys' fees on appeal. We consolidated the appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶11] We review summary judgment rulings de novo, affording no deference to the district court's order. Gayhart v. Corsi, 2020 WY 58, ¶ 11, 462 P.3d 904, --- (Wyo. 2020) (quoting Wyoming Jet Ctr., LLC v. Jackson Hole Airport Bd., 2019 WY 6, ¶ 10, 432 P.3d 910, 914 (Wyo. 2019)). "Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Davison v. Wyo. Game & Fish Comm'n, 2010 WY 121, ¶ 8, 238 P.3d 556, 560 (Wyo. 2010) (quoting Jacobs Ranch Coal Co. v. Thunder Basin Coal Co., LLC, 2008 WY 101, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 125,128 (Wyo. 2008)). "The evidence presented in a summary judgment proceeding must be admissible and competent." Warwick v. Accessible Space, Inc., 2019 WY 89, ¶ 11, 448 P.3d 206, 211 (Wyo. 2019) (citing Jones v. Schabron, 2005 WY 65, ¶ 10, 113 P.3d 34, 37 (Wyo. 2005)).

[¶12] Ms. Douglas and JHLT do not dispute the material facts. Instead, their disagreement concerns interpretation of the easement agreement. We review easements as we do questions of contract interpretation. Davison, 2010 WY 121, ¶ 9, 238 P.3d at 560.

The initial question of whether the contract is capable of being understood in only one way is a question of law for the court. If the court determines that the contract is capable of being understood in only one way, then the language used in the contract expresses and controls the intent of the parties. In such case, the next question, what is that understanding or meaning, is also a question of law. When we review the district court's summary judgment decisions that a contract is capable of being understood in only one way and what that understanding is, we accord no deference to those decisions.

M & M Auto Outlet v. Hill Inv. Corp., 2010 WY 56, ¶ 12, 230 P.3d 1099, 1104 (Wyo. 2010) (quoting Examination Mgmt. Servs., Inc. v. Kirschbaum, 927 P.2d 686, 689 (Wyo. 1996)). Likewise, "when the determination of whether a party is entitled to attorney fees is based upon a contract providing for such fees, our usual rules of contract interpretation apply." Thorkildsen v. Belden, 2011 WY 26, ¶ 8, 247 P.3d 60, 62 (Wyo. 2011).

DISCUSSION
I. The accessway traversing Ms. Douglas' property is a driveway...

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