Hutson v. Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co., 84SC143

Docket NºNo. 84SC143
Citation723 P.2d 736
Case DateJuly 07, 1986
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

Eiberger, Stacy & Smith, Carl F. Eiberger and Paul F. Hodapp, Denver, for petitioners.

Cockrell, Quinn & Creighton, Victor Quinn and Peter J. Wiebe, Jr., Denver, for respondent.

ERICKSON, Justice.

We granted certiorari in Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co. v. Gleason, 686 P.2d 802 (Colo.App.1984), to determine whether an interest in a forty-foot strip of land acquired in a condemnation proceeding in 1876 was a "limited fee" or an easement. The court of appeals held in Gleason that the condemnation decree awarded the Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Company (Ditch Company) limited fee title to the property. We conclude that the decree vested the Ditch Company with an easement and not with a limited fee. We reverse that portion of the judgment of the court of appeals which interpreted the 1876 decree and remand the case to the court of appeals with directions to reinstate the order of the district court on that issue.

I.

Plaintiff-respondent, the Ditch Company, owns and operates the Agricultural Ditch (Ditch) in Jefferson County. The Ditch Company brought a quiet title action in Jefferson County District Court against the defendants-petitioners, Lowell and Mary Hutson and Chris and Linda Nelson 1 (Homeowners), owners of property along the north bank of the Ditch. 2 The complaint alleged that the Ditch Company is the owner in fee simple of a forty-foot strip of property extending twenty feet onto both banks from the centerline of the Ditch. The strip is used periodically as an access road for inspection and maintenance purposes. The Ditch Company sought a determination of its claim to the land as against the claims of the Homeowners. The Ditch Company also alleged that the Homeowners maintain fences and have planted trees that obstruct the property. The Ditch Company sought an order enjoining the Homeowners from interfering with their fee interest. 3 The Homeowners' answer denied that their ownership interests were without foundation or adverse to the rights of the Ditch Company.

The Ditch Company acquired its interest in a condemnation action in Jefferson County Probate Court in January 1876. The very limited record here does not contain the decree. The only document evidencing the terms of the decree is the report of the appraisers appointed by the probate court during the 1876 proceedings to determine the value of the condemned property. The appraisers' report stated: "That said Company takes therefrom for a right of way for said Ditch a strip of land forty feet wide and about one hundred and sixty rods in length containing about Two and one half acres."

After a trial to the court, the Jefferson County District Court issued its "Findings, Conclusions, and Orders" on July 15, 1981, and ruled that the Ditch Company has an easement to use the property to operate the Ditch. The court rejected the Ditch Company's additional claim to a prescriptive easement in a separate strip of property adjacent to the forty-foot strip.

The court of appeals reversed. Gleason, 686 P.2d at 802. The court of appeals, applying the condemnation statute in effect in January 1876, Ch. XVIII, § 48, Rev.Stat. of Colo. (1868), held that the Ditch Company owns the property in "limited fee" to the extent required to operate and maintain the Ditch, subject to defeasance if the Ditch ceases operation. The court of appeals also reversed the district court's order denying the prescriptive easement.

We granted certiorari to review only the court of appeals' holding that the 1876 decree vested the Ditch Company with limited fee title to the property. We do not review that portion of the court of appeals' decision holding that the Ditch Company has a prescriptive easement on property adjacent to the forty-foot strip. 4

II.

The Homeowners do not dispute that the Ditch Company has an easement to operate the Ditch on the condemned property. We only consider whether the Ditch Company's interest is limited to an easement, as claimed by the Homeowners, or is instead a limited fee, as the court of appeals concluded.

We first note that a plaintiff in a quiet title action under C.R.C.P. 105 bears the burden of establishing title in the property superior to that of the defendant. "In an action seeking to quiet title the plaintiff must rely on the strength of his own title rather than on the weakness in or lack of title in defendants." Morrissey v. Achziger, 147 Colo. 510, 513, 364 P.2d 187, 189 (1961). See also Fastenau v. Engel, 129 Colo. 440, 270 P.2d 1019 (1954). The Ditch Company bears the burden of establishing its claim to fee ownership of the property.

In an action to quiet title to condemned property, courts generally consider the nature of the interest in issue and determine the intent, express or implied, of the condemnation decree awarding the interest. See City of Grand Junction v. Kannah Creek Water Users Association, 192 Colo. 284, 557 P.2d 1173 (1976); Lamberson v. Thomas, 146 Colo. 539, 362 P.2d 180 (1961).

In concluding that the Ditch Company owns the property in limited fee, the court of appeals supplied its own interpretation of the 1868 statute without regard to the terms of the 1876 condemnation decree as evidenced in the appraisers' report. 686 P.2d at 805. We reject the analytical approach used by the court of appeals as an improper invasion of vested, private property rights. Colo. Const. art. II, §§ 14-15.

The report of the appraisers, the only direct evidence offered by the Ditch Company demonstrating the terms of the decree, describes the Ditch Company's interest as "a right of way for said Ditch...." The report was delivered to the probate court on January 11, 1876, eight days after the appraisers were appointed by the court. The report states that the property valuation was made "[a]fter hearing the proofs and allegations required by Law, and after reviewing the various parcels of land sought to be taken or affected...."

In the absence of additional descriptive language, "right-of-way," when used to describe an ownership interest in real property, is traditionally construed to be an easement. See, e.g., Lethin v. United States, 583 F.Supp. 863 (D.Or.1984); Wessells v. State, Department of Highways, 562 P.2d 1042 (Ala.1977); Loyd v. Southwest Arkansas Utilities Corp., 264 Ark. 818, 580 S.W.2d 935 (1979); SMB Investments v. Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric Co., 329 N.W.2d 635 (Iowa 1983); Minneapolis Athletic Club v. Cohler, 287 Minn. 254, 177 N.W.2d 786 (1970); State ex rel. State Highway Commission v. Dannevik, 79 N.M. 630, 447 P.2d 510 (1968).

The court of appeals quoted McCotter v. Barnes, 247 N.C. 480, 101 S.E.2d 330 (1958), to support the conclusion that "right-of-way" can mean a fee interest. Gleason, 686 P.2d at 805. McCotter actually states, in the sentence immediately preceding the language quoted by the court of appeals, that: "The term 'right of way' has a two-fold meaning: it may be used to designate an easement, and, apart from that, it may be used as descriptive of the use or purpose to which a strip of land is put." 101 S.E.2d at 334. In the present case the appraisers' report clearly intended to describe an ownership interest in real property. The report stated: "[The Ditch] Company takes therefrom for a right of way for said Ditch...."

The court of appeals correctly pointed out that the 1868 condemnation statute in part stated that ditch companies receiving condemned property "shall become seized in fee...." Ch. XVIII, § 48,...

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19 cases
  • Chevy Chase Land Co. v. US, Misc. No. 24
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • 29 juillet 1999
    ...P.2d 526 (1979)(use of language "right-of-way" is conclusive of intent to convey easement); Hutson v. Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co., 723 P.2d 736 (Colo.1986)(holding that condemnation decree of right-of-way constituted an easement because an easement would accomplish purpose of decree)......
  • Hinojos v. Lohmann, 06CA0998.
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals of Colorado
    • 10 janvier 2008
    ...title action has the burden of establishing title superior to that claimed by the defendant. Hutson v. Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co., 723 P.2d 736, 738 (Colo.1986). Thus, the plaintiff may not capitalize on the weakness of the defendant's claim to title, but can succeed only by establi......
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    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • 14 janvier 1991
    ...holding that the term "right of way" is generally construed to describe an easement. See Hutson v. Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co., 723 P.2d 736, 739 (Colo.1986) ("In the absence of additional descriptive language, 'right-of-way,' when used to describe an ownership interest in real prope......
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    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals of Colorado
    • 18 octobre 2007
    ...title action has the burden of establishing title superior to that claimed by the defendant. Hutson v. Agricultural Ditch & Reservoir Co., 723 P.2d 736, 738 (Colo. 1986). Thus, the plaintiff may not capitalize on the weakness of the defendant's claim to title, but can succeed only by establ......
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