Peter Bay Homeowners v. Stillman, 062702 FED3, 01-3726

Docket Nº:01-3726
Party Name:Peter Bay Homeowners v. Stillman
Case Date:May 14, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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PETER BAY HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC.,

v.

ANDREW R. STILLMAN; JOY H. STILLMAN; JOHN G. CATTS; SHEILA J. ROEBUCK ANTONIO GODINEZ; BONNIE GODINEZ; MICHAEL BURGAMY; ETHLYN HALL, INTERVENING PLAINTIFFS IN DISTRICT COURT v. JAMES HENRY; CAROL HENRY; L.D. KIRK; SCOTT F. MEESE; DONNA G. MEESE; ARIE LIEBESKIND; DOREEN LIEBESKIND; JIM R. HAYES; ZAQUIN S. HAYES; JEFFREY PRICE; STEVEN PAUL; JANN PAUL; ST. JOHN LAND INVESTMENT L.P.; ANDREWS ST. JOHN TRUST, INTERVENING DEFENDANTS IN DISTRICT COURT PETER BAY OWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC., APPELLANT IN 01-3726 JAMES HENRY, CAROL HENRY AND (FN*)ROBERT D. BLAKENEY II, APPELLANTS IN 01-3727 ANDREWS ST. JOHN TRUST, APPELLANT IN 01-3728

Nos. 01-3726, 01-3727, 01-3728

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Argued: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

June 27, 2002

         On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John (D.C. Civ. No 97-cv-00036) District Judge: Honorable Stanley S. Brotman, United States District Court Judge, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, sitting by designation

          Matthew J. Duensing, Esq. (argued) Margaret A. Duensing, Esq. Stryker, Duensing, Casner & Dollison P.O. Box 6785 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00804 Attorneys for James Henry, Carol Henry and Robert Blakeney

          Susan Moorehead, Esq. (argued) Grunert Stout & Bruch P.O. Box 1030 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00804 Attorney for Andrews St. John Trust James M. Derr, Esq. 28-29 Norre Gade P.O. Box 664 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00804 Attorney for Peter Bay Owners Association

          Samuel H. Hall, Jr., Esq. (argued) Birch, de Jongh, Hindels & Hall 1330 Estate Taarnebjerg Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00802 Attorney for Ethlyn Hall

          John H. Benham, Esq. (argued) Watts & Benham, P.C. No. 1 Frederiksberg Gade P.O. Box 11720 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00801 Attorney for Andrew Stillman and Joy Stillman

          Henry C. Smock, Esq. (argued) Smock Law Offices, P.C. P.O. Box 1498 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Usvi 00804 Attorney for Antonio Godinez and Bonnie Godinez

          Before: Ambro, Fuentes and Garth, Circuit Judges

          Garth, Circuit Judge

          In the normal course of a federal judge's labours, rarely do issues of real estate title, metes and bounds, or easements come before the District Court. This appeal, stemming from former District Court Judge Warren Young's opinion dated August 21, 1975, is the exception. This appeal concerns the scope of an easement across certain beachfront properties in an area in St. John, Virgin Islands, known as Peter Bay. The question presented is whether the easement across three parcels of land which make up a portion of the beachfront property in Peter Bay-- Parcels 1, 2A, and 10A (the "relevant parcels") -- extends from the low water shoreline to 50' inland or to the vegetation berm (which is less than 50' inland in most places). According to the parties, the size of this beachfront easement significantly affects the value and utility of individual parcels within the current Peter Bay subdivision and the value of the subdivision as a whole.

          I.

          In 1997, the Peter Bay Owners Association, an organization created for the collective benefit of the property owners in Peter Bay (the "Association"), commenced suit against four individual Peter Bay property owners in the District Court of the Virgin Islands seeking dues and declaratory judgment concerning, inter alia, certain obligations stemming from a prior 1975 district court opinion. A number of other Peter Bay property owners intervened in the action. All issues were eventually settled except for the easement issue. On August 22, 2001, the District Court vacated a portion of its prior July 8, 1999 decision and ruled that the easement with respect to the relevant parcels (Parcels 1, 2A, and 10A) ran only to the vegetation berm.

          The Association and certain property owners appealed the August 2001 opinion and order. Other than the Association, the appellants are: (1) James and Carol Henry, owners of Parcel 2B (the "Henrys"); (2) Robert Blakeney II, owner of Parcel 3, ("Blakeney"); and (3) Andrews St. Johns Trust, owner of Parcel 13A ("Andrews Trust").

          The appellees are: (1) Ethlyn Hall, owner of Parcel 16 ("Hall"); (2) Andrew and Joy Stillman, owners of Parcel 10A (the "Stillmans"); (3) Antonio and Bonnie Godinez, owners of Parcel 2A, (the "Godinezes"); and (4) Michael Burgamy, owner of Parcel 1 ("Burgamy"). We recognize that some of the parties and intervenors were not the subject of the District Court's August 22, 2001 order, and hence we do not review or rule upon the arguments which they have presented in their briefs and on oral argument. Indeed, in some instances, we are uncertain as to the relief they seek in the context of the easement size.

          For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the restrictions set forth in the "Declaration of Protective Covenants for the Partnership Property" (the"Protective Covenants") establish a 50' easement across Parcels 1 (owned by Burgamy) and 2A (owned by the Godinezes). We also conclude, however, that Parcel 10A (owned by the Stillmans) is charged with only a berm line easement because it is not subject to the Protective Covenants inasmuch as the Stillmans received their property directly from Harthman heirs.

          Ethlyn Hall, the owner of Parcel 16, was not the subject of the District Court's August 2001 order and is an original Harthman heir -- hence, her deed, which provides for an easement to the vegetation berm, requires no relief from us. Similarly, the Andrews Trust property (Parcel 13A), which was not the subject of the District Court's August 2001 order, is not reviewed by us, but is subject to the 50' easement decreed by the District Court in its earlier July 1999 opinion since no motion for reconsideration was sought. In any event, Parcel 13A is subject to the Protective Covenants.

          The Henrys' Parcel 2B is also subject to the 50' easement provided in the Protective Covenants (and in some places, to a 55' easement), but, as noted, their parcel was not the subject of the District Court's August 2001 order, and hence is not reviewed by us.

          Lastly, Blakeney, whose Parcel 3 had been received from Andrews Trust subject to the Protective Covenants, was not the subject of the District Court's August 2001 order, but would not be affected either by this opinion or the Protective Covenants to the extent that much, if not all, of Parcel 3 lacks beach frontage. We record these various prescriptions, however, only to clear the record and to dispel any confusion that may have arisen from the pleadings, the various proceedings, or the oral argument.

          For the reasons that follow, we will affirm in part and reverse in part the District Court's August 2001 judgment.

          II.

          A.

          The history of this litigation began three decades ago when Lillian Harthman Cheng brought suit in 1970 to partition certain land in Peter Bay that had been inherited by six Hartman heirs, of which Cheng was one. The action was brought before the Honorable Warren Young, U.S. District Court Judge of the Virgin Islands, who issued his opinion and order in 1975. See Harthman v. Harthman, 12 V.I. 142 (D.V.I. 1975).

          The land to be partitioned totaled 50.82 acres and was legally described as "Peter Farm of Estate Peter Bay, 2 aa Maho Bay Quarter, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands," consisting of 26.07 acres south and 23.7 acres north of a public road, plus an area of 1.05 acres for the road itself. See Harthman, 12 V.I. at 147. It is located on the north coast of St. John between Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, approximately three miles from Cruz Bay Town.

          The Harthman Court appointed a number of commissioners to recommend the most equitable way to apportion the land among the six heirs. Dividing the land into 17 distinct parcels, the Commissioners assigned number values to certain features of each particular parcel, and concluded with an overall weighted score to determine the worth of each land grouping. In particular, the Commissioners gave higher weight to the beachfront properties, since their proximity to the shore provided additional value. Together with the personal preferences expressed by each heir, Judge Young distributed the parcels based largely upon the Commissioners' weighted value system and recommendations. The actual distribution among the heirs is not relevant to this appeal, except that it should be noted that among the parcels received by Ethlyn Hall -- one of the six original Harthman heirs -- was Parcel 16, a beachfront property.(FN1)

          In order to preserve access to the beach from some of the non-beachfront properties, the Court ordered that an easement be established across each of the beachfront properties for the mutual use and enjoyment of all property owners of the beach. Accordingly, the court ordered that [t]here should be shown a beach easement from the water's edge to the berm line -- approximately 50 ' inland -- on Parcels [1, 2A, 2B, 10A, 13A, 16]. The line on Parcel [3] should be closer to the rocky shore. Harthman, 12 V.I. at 157.

          The court also stated that

          [a]ll owners of parcels and all future owners of plots which may or shall be subdivided from the parcels located in Estate Peter Farm, of Peter Bay, St. John, shall have a perpetual easement of the use and enjoyment of the beach area existing approximately 50' inland from the low water mark on all waterfront parcels (except partially on [Parcel 3]). As a condition to the continued use and enjoyment of said beach area, the said owners,...

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