Hoyler v. State, Appellate Case No. 2016-001277

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Citation833 S.E.2d 845,428 S.C. 279
Decision Date07 August 2019
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2016-001277,Opinion No. 5676
Parties H. Marshall HOYLER, Appellant, v. The STATE of South Carolina, Merry Land Properties, LLC, Sherbert Living Trust, Supan Living Trust, Elizabeth R. Levin, Edward McCray Wise Revoc. Living Trust, Carol Ann DeVries Wise Revoc. Living Trust, Amelie Cromer, Philip Cromer, Robert Chiavello, Tocharoen Living Trust, Helen M. Olesak, Lesley Anne Glick a/k/a Lesley Ann Glick, Shirley G. Lackey, Patricia Banfield, Bertrand Cooper, Jr., NHP SH South Carolina I, LLC n/k/a CCP Bayview 7176 LLC, Oyster Cove Homeowners Ass., Shirley Anne Moyer, Barry D. Malphrus, Garry D. Malphrus, Donnie Malphrus, Rita Brown, Houston Family Partnership, Joan Taylor Trustee, Michael Bull, Nancy Bull, Marny H. VonHarten, Dianne M. Donaldson, Brian R. Evans, Stephen Durbin, Valerie Durbin, Phillip Marti, Jane Marti, Michael Woodworth, Georgiana M. Cooke, Daniel B. Walsh Janet E. Walsh, Defendants, Of which The State of South Carolina and Merry Land Properties, LLC are the Respondents.

Jefferson D. Griffith, III, and Richard Lee Whitt, both of Austin & Rogers, P.A., of Columbia, for Appellant.

Mary Duncan Shahid and Angelica M. Colwell, both of Nexsen Pruet, LLC, and Stephen Peterson Groves, Sr., of Butler Snow, LLP, all of Charleston, for Respondent Merry Land Properties, LLC.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Solicitor General Robert D. Cook, and Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., all of Columbia, for Respondent The State of South Carolina.

GEATHERS, J.:

Appellant H. Marshall Hoyler challenges an order of the Master-in-Equity denying his request pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 48-39-220 (2008) to declare that Hoyler holds title to 95.27 acres of tidelands along the Beaufort River and abutting the Town of Port Royal.1 Hoyler argues that this property is readily identifiable from the plat incorporated into the deed to his predecessor in title and, therefore, the master improperly considered extrinsic evidence. Hoyler also argues the master erred by (1) allowing adjacent property owners to intervene in the action; (2) concluding the adjacent property owners had standing; (3) keeping the record open to allow Respondent Merry Land Properties, LLC (Merry Land) to submit additional testimony; and (4) declining to hear post-trial motions in a timely manner. We affirm.2

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 2006, Merry Land purchased two tracts of land in the Town of Port Royal for the purpose of constructing a mixed-use development, including condominiums, with deep water access to the Beaufort River. One of the tracts consists of eight acres with access to the Beaufort River via tidelands within which Hoyler claims ownership of 95.27 acres (the disputed marsh).3 Merry Land paid $4.5 million for this tract.

The other tract, for which Merry Land paid $1.5 million, consists of 10 acres and borders Johnny Morrall Circle and Ribaut Road. Prior to closing on the purchase of these tracts, Merry Land obtained state and federal permits authorizing construction of a community marina.

After Merry Land closed on the purchase of these tracts, it refinanced the loan secured by the property. During the refinancing process, the appraiser employed by Merry Land's lender discovered a notation in the Beaufort County GIS System indicating a tax parcel in the marsh where Merry Land planned to launch the marina.4 As a result, Merry Land sent a letter to Hoyler, a Rhode Island resident, offering to purchase this property. Rather than accepting the offer, Hoyler filed this action on November 8, 2007, against Respondent State of South Carolina to obtain a declaration that he owned the disputed marsh.

In his complaint, Hoyler asserted the existence of an 1891 deed to his predecessor in title, J.M. Crofut, from former Governor Benjamin R. Tillman for 95.27 acres of marshland located on the Beaufort River. The complaint also asserted that the deed was accompanied by a plat depicting a tract "bounded on the South by lands of Moss, on the West by miscellaneous individuals, on the North by Seal Island Chemical Works[,] and on the East by the Beaufort River." An heir of Crofut, Elizabeth Waterhouse, devised a share of her putative interest in the property to Hoyler in 1968, and in 1979, the remaining heirs conveyed their respective putative interests to Hoyler for $10.

In its answer to the complaint, the State asserted that it held prima facie title to the disputed marsh in trust for the public and Hoyler lacked the power to exclude the public from the marsh. Merry Land filed a motion to intervene in this action as well as an "Answer and Counterclaim" asserting that Hoyler was barred from preventing construction of the planned marina by the doctrines of estoppel and laches. On February 22, 2008, the master, with the consent of counsel for all parties, executed an order granting Merry Land's motion to intervene.5

The master conducted a hearing on January 31, 2011, in which he denied Hoyler's subsequent and contrarian motion to dismiss Merry Land from this action and ruled, sua sponte , that several additional owners of property adjacent to the disputed marsh would be joined as defendants.6 In his written order, the master concluded the adjacent property owners were being joined pursuant to Rule 20(a), SCRCP,7 because they could lose their right of access to the Beaufort River upon a declaration that Hoyler held title to the disputed marsh. Hoyler filed a motion for reconsideration and a Notice of Appeal. The motion for reconsideration remained unresolved until after this court dismissed the appeal as interlocutory and our supreme court denied certiorari. On remand, the master denied Hoyler's motion for reconsideration and granted a motion to intervene filed by Nancy Deering Carey. Hoyler appealed these rulings, and this court also dismissed the appeal as interlocutory.

Subsequently, Hoyler served all of the adjoining property owners with notice of this action, and the master conducted a hearing on November 19, 2015. The master allowed the record to stay open for 45 days after the hearing to allow Merry Land to obtain the deposition testimony of a surveyor who had worked with Merry Land's civil engineering expert. After the master reviewed this deposition testimony, he sent an e-mail to counsel for the parties requesting a proposed order from counsel for Respondents. In response, Hoyler filed a motion challenging the findings in the master's e-mail pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCRCP. The master denied this motion in a Form 4 order.

On May 27, 2016, the master issued a written order concluding that the conveyance to Crofut was a valid exercise of the State's authority under the law as it existed at the time of the conveyance but the property could not be accurately located and, therefore, Hoyler was not entitled to a declaration that he held title to the disputed marsh. On June 19, 2016, Hoyler filed a second Rule 59(e) motion in response to the written order, and the master denied this motion. This appeal followed.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Did the master err by concluding Hoyler was not entitled to a declaration that he held title to 95.27 acres of marshland as against the State?

2. Did the master err by allowing adjacent property owners to intervene in this action?

3. Did the master err by concluding the adjacent property owners had standing?

4. Did the master abuse his discretion by keeping the record open to allow Merry Land to submit additional testimony?

5. Did the master err by declining to hear post-trial motions in a timely manner?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"A suit for declaratory judgment is neither legal nor equitable, but is determined by the nature of the underlying issue." Query v. Burgess , 371 S.C. 407, 410, 639 S.E.2d 455, 456 (Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Felts v. Richland Cty. , 303 S.C. 354, 356, 400 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1991) ). "To make this determination [the appellate court] look[s] to the main purpose of the action as determined by the complaint." Id. (quoting Estate of Revis v. Revis , 326 S.C. 470, 476, 484 S.E.2d 112, 115 (Ct. App. 1997) ). When the complaint's main purpose "concerns the determination of title to real property, it is an action at law." Id.

"In an action at law, [the appellate court] will affirm the master's factual findings if there is any evidence in the record [that] reasonably supports them.’ " Id. (quoting Lowcountry Open Land Tr. v. State , 347 S.C. 96, 101–02, 552 S.E.2d 778, 781 (Ct. App. 2001) ). Further, "[the appellate c]ourt reviews all questions of law de novo." Fesmire v. Digh , 385 S.C. 296, 302, 683 S.E.2d 803, 807 (Ct. App. 2009) ; see also Clardy v. Bodolosky , 383 S.C. 418, 425, 679 S.E.2d 527, 530 (Ct. App. 2009) ("Questions of law may be decided with no particular deference to the trial court." (quoting S.C. Dep't of Transp. v. M & T Enters. of Mt. Pleasant, LLC , 379 S.C. 645, 654, 667 S.E.2d 7, 12 (Ct. App. 2008) )).

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Determination of Title

Hoyler argues that the 95.27 acres is readily identifiable from the plat incorporated into the deed to Crofut and, therefore, the master improperly considered extrinsic evidence. On the other hand, Merry Land contends the intent underlying the deed's incorporation of the plat was to show the boundaries, metes, courses, and distances of the property conveyed but the plat's information was insufficient to identify those features.8 Likewise, the State maintains the plat provided insufficient guidance. We agree with Merry Land and the State.

We begin our analysis with the foundation on which the determination of property rights in tidelands rests, South Carolina's public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine provides that lands below the high water mark are presumptively owned by the State and held in trust for the benefit of the public, and it has been a vital part of the jurisprudence of South Carolina and many other...

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