Mains Farm Homeowners Ass'n v. Worthington

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Citation121 Wn.2d 810,854 P.2d 1072
Decision Date15 July 1993
Docket NumberNo. 59058-3,59058-3
PartiesMAINS FARM HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, and Rod Grant, individually, Respondents, v. Salima WORTHINGTON and Raymond E. Miller, Petitioners. En Banc

Millet & Mauhar, Alan E. Millet, Sequim, Joseph B. Lavin, Port Angeles, for petitioners.

Johnson & Williams, Ken Williams, Port Angeles, for respondents.

Jeff B. Crollard, Cathy Blinka, Lonnie Davis, William L.E. Dussault, Seattle, Howard Graham, Tacoma, F.H. "Bud" Oakes, Spokane, amici curiae for petitioners on Behalf of Alzheimer Society of Washington, United Cerebral Palsy of King-Snohomish Counties, Washington Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, Washington Protection and Advocacy System, Adult Licensed Facilities of Washington, Adult Family Home East-West United, Sea-Tac Adult Family Home Ass'n, Sno-King Adult Family Home Ass'n, Washington State Head Injury Foundation, Ass'n for Persons with Severe Disabilities, and Disabilities Research and Information Coalition.

Christine O. Gregoire, Atty. Gen., Brian E. Buchholz, Asst., Robert L. Schroeter, Asst., Olympia, amicus curiae.


This is an action for an injunction to prevent defendant from operating an adult family home business in her residence on a residential lot in the Mains Farm plat. The trial court on summary judgment motion granted an injunction. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Mains Farm Homeowners Ass'n v. Worthington, 64 Wash.App. 171, 824 P.2d 495 (1992). We affirm, emphasizing that the limited record prevents consideration of important broad public policy issues which defendant and amici attempt to raise, mainly after conclusion of trial court proceedings. In reviewing the grant of a summary judgment, we take the position of the trial court and review questions of law de novo. DuVon v. Rockwell Int'l, 116 Wash.2d 749, 753, 807 P.2d 876 (1991).

A declaration of protective covenants covering the Mains Farm plat was recorded in 1962. Defendant purchased her residential lot, with a house on it, in 1987. Before purchasing, defendant obtained and read a copy of the protective covenants.

The relevant protective covenants are these:

(1) All lots or tracts in MAINS FARM shall be designated as 'Residence Lots,' and shall be used for single family residential purposes only.

.... No structure shall be erected, altered or placed on the plat of MAINS FARM which shall serve as other than a single family dwelling unit....

(Italics ours.) Brief of Appellant App. A.

Defendant occupies the residence together with four adults who pay her a total of between $24,000 and $48,000 per year (the record is not more specific) for 24-hour care, 7 days a week.

To operate her for-profit enterprise in the residence, defendant must be licensed and inspected by the State. The people living there cannot be children. They cannot be related to her. Defendant and her employees must provide 24-hour protective supervision and care. By law, those occupants must require supervision or health care beyond board and room. In fact, those occupants are unable to do their own housekeeping, prepare their own meals, or attend to their personal hygiene. WAC 388-76-030(2), (3), (7); Clerk's Papers, at 136.

By law, defendant could not operate this business if she were under the age of 21, nor if she had certain criminal convictions. Defendant, by law, could not operate this business without demonstrating that she, and her family members, other relatives and friends, regularly on the premises (i.e., unmonitored access) are free of the same convictions. In addition, the defendant, her family members, other relatives and friends must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the State that she and they "have the understanding, language skills, physical health, emotional stability, personality, and professional skills suited to meet the physical, mental, emotional, and social needs" of the occupants under care. Former WAC 388-76-070, WAC 388-76-030(10). 1

This is an action for an injunction. Therefore, it is addressed to the equitable powers of the court. The criteria for an injunction are set forth in Port of Seattle v. International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union, 52 Wash.2d 317, 319, 324 P.2d 1099 (1958). As we have said: "the listed criteria must be examined in light of equity including balancing the relative interests of the parties and, if appropriate, the interests of the public." Tyler Pipe Indus. Inc. v. Department of Rev., 96 Wash.2d 785, 792, 638 P.2d 1213 (1982). Those criteria are not argued here, but application of equitable principles is important. Before defendant bought the premises, she read the restrictive covenants. She had moved out of her prior adult care home because of opposition from neighbors. Written opposition by plaintiffs was made known to defendant immediately after her purchase. Clerk's Papers, at 128-29, 132. Despite that knowledge, defendant applied for a building permit to add a fifth bedroom by converting the garage to a bedroom, adding another bathroom and otherwise enlarging the residence. She was advised by the county that her intended facility did not comply with applicable zoning. She later obtained the permit by stating that only her family would be living with her. In her words: "I told them what they wanted to hear". Clerk's Papers, at 174.

These equitable considerations must be kept in mind when turning to the standards of interpretation. First, "[i]n Washington, owners of land have an equitable right to enforce covenants by means of a general building scheme designed to make it more attractive for residential purposes, without showing substantial damage from the violation." (Citations omitted.) Hagemann v. Worth, 56 Wash.App. 85, 88, 782 P.2d 1072 (1989).

Second, "[t]he primary objective in interpreting restrictive covenants [protective covenants are equally descriptive] is to determine the intent of the parties ...". (Footnote omitted.) Lakes at Mercer Island Homeowners Ass'n v. Witrak, 61 Wash.App. 177, 179, 810 P.2d 27, review denied, 117 Wash.2d 1013, 816 P.2d 1224 (1991). In determining intent, language in the covenant is to be given its "ordinary and common use". Krein v. Smith, 60 Wash.App. 809, 811, 807 P.2d 906, review denied, 117 Wash.2d 1002, 815 P.2d 266 (1991).

Defendant argues restrictive covenants are to be strictly construed against the grantor and those claiming the benefit of the covenant. Hunter Tract Imp. Co. v. Corporation of Catholic Bishop, 98 Wash. 112, 114, 167 P. 100 (1917). The use of the word "grantor" is an obvious clue to the fact that the Hunter court was referring to the grantor in a deed which poses a different problem. Construction against the grantor who presumably prepared the deed is quite a different matter from construction of covenants intended to restrict and protect all the lots of a plat and future owners who buy and build in reliance thereon. That issue is not addressed by the parties.

However, such a rule of strict construction should be reexamined in an appropriate case with a proper record. The premise that protective covenants restrict the alienation of land and, therefore, should be strictly construed may not be correct. "Subdivision covenants tend to enhance, not inhibit, the efficient use of land.... In other words [it is argued], covenants prevent land from moving to its most efficient uses. In the subdivision context, the premise generally is not valid." (Footnote omitted. Italics ours.) Brussack, Group Homes, Families, and Meaning in the Law of Subdivision Covenants, 16 Ga.L.Rev. 33, 42, 44 (1981-1982).

The strict construction rule is not of significance here because we give the language its ordinary and common use and do not read the covenant so as to defeat its plain and obvious meaning. This leads to the conclusion that defendant's commercial use is prohibited. Lakes at Mercer Island Homeowners Ass'n v. Witrak, supra, 61 Wash.App. at 180, 810 P.2d 27.

To reach this conclusion, we consider the first question which is the meaning of "single family". This phrase must be interpreted. The cases interpreting "family" are legion. Annot., What Constitutes a "Family" Within Meaning of Zoning Regulation or Restrictive Covenant, 71 A.L.R.3d 693 (1976). Any of the cases must be used with caution. The word "family" may be defined by an applicable zoning ordinance, a matter not presented by this record. Some cases involve a state statute which bears a different relationship to zoning powers than to vested property rights embodied in a restrictive covenant.

No purpose will be served by examining and comparing in detail the numerous cases which define "family". Because of the widely differing documents being interpreted, the contexts in which the word is used and the fact specific circumstances, it is impossible to arrive at a single, all-purpose definition. The possible definitions range from limiting the "family" to the historical, traditional persons related by blood, marriage or adoption to "a group of people who live, sleep, cook, and eat upon the premises as a single housekeeping unit." Crowley v. Knapp, 94 Wis.2d 421, 437, 288 N.W.2d 815, 823 (1980); Adult Group Properties, Ltd. v. Imler, 505 N.E.2d 459 (Ind.Ct.App.1987).

Likewise, attempting to use one of the many dictionary classifications solves nothing. It has been observed:

First, although a group home may meet one of the dictionary definitions of 'family,' the focus must be on the contextual meaning of the word rather than the range of linguistically permissible meanings. Second, the fact that a group home is set up to emulate family behavior should not be regarded as a sufficient condition for family status within the social meaning of a single-family-use covenant.

Brussack, at 55. For similar reasons, the use of a phrase or two out of a dictionary to define "residential" for purposes of this covenant is not...

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