Reeves v. Godspeed Props., S-17884

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtBORGHESAN, JUSTICE.
PartiesJOHN REEVES and FAIRBANKS GOLD CO., LLC, Appellants and Cross-Appellees, v. GODSPEED PROPERTIES, LLC and GOLD DREDGE 8, LLC, Appellees and Cross-Appellants.
Docket NumberS-17884,S-17904
Decision Date16 September 2022

JOHN REEVES and FAIRBANKS GOLD CO., LLC, Appellants and Cross-Appellees,
v.

GODSPEED PROPERTIES, LLC and GOLD DREDGE 8, LLC, Appellees and Cross-Appellants.

Nos. S-17884, S-17904

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 16, 2022


Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, No. 4FA-12-02133 CI, Paul R. Lyle, Judge.

Joseph W. Sheehan, Sheehan Law Office, Fairbanks, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees.

Matthew T. Findley and A. William Saupe, Ashburn & Mason, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

Before: Maassen, Carney, Borghesan, and Henderson, Justices. [Winfree, Chief Justice, not participating.]

OPINION

BORGHESAN, JUSTICE.

I. INTRODUCTION

When one party has an easement across land owned by another, the interests of the parties must be balanced so that the landowner can use the property to the

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degree consistent with the purpose of the easement. This rule of reasonable accommodation is at the heart of the issues presented in this appeal.

The superior court ordered the landowner to temporarily remove a tourist railway it had built across an easement to allow the easement holder to build a paved road capable of dedication as a public right-of-way. The court required the railway, once reinstalled, to be operated in ways designed to lessen interference with use of the road. Further, the court ruled that the landowner would be liable for any increased construction and dedication costs the easement holder incurred as a result of the railway crossing.

On appeal the easement holder argues that the court erred by permitting the landowner to make reasonable use of land covered by the easement; allowing the landowner to build permanent improvements in the easement; limiting the road width to 60 feet when the width of the granted easement was 100 feet; permitting improvements that would allegedly interfere with the ability to dedicate the easement; and failing to account for time needed to obtain administrative approvals when setting a road construction schedule. The landowner cross-appeals, claiming it is the prevailing party entitled to attorney's fees. Seeing no error in the superior court's rulings, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts

Godspeed Properties, LLC owns a parcel of land (MS-1724) that is adjacent to John Reeves's parcel of land (MS-1709).[1] Godspeed also owns a lot containing an old gold dredge (Gold Dredge 8) maintained as a tourist attraction.

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The deed to MS-1724 contained a reserved easement allowing the easement holder to cross MS-1724 to reach other properties, including Reeves's land. The deed stated that the easement was "a dedicatable easement for ingress, egress, and utilities, 100 feet in width."

Godspeed acquired MS-1724 in 2009. Reeves then informed Godspeed that Reeves had rights to the easement running through MS-1724 and offered to sell the easement to Godspeed. The parties negotiated for several years but were unable to come to an agreement. Meanwhile Godspeed developed MS-1724 as an integrated tourist attraction and built a railway encroaching on Reeves's easement that takes visitors to see Gold Dredge 8.

In 2012 the Fairbanks North Star Borough granted Reeves preliminary plat approval to subdivide his parcel of land. The plat included Reeves's plan to dedicate 60 feet of his easement across MS-1724 as a public right-of-way to access the subdivision.

After negotiations between Reeves and Godspeed derailed, Reeves constructed a dirt road on the easement. Godspeed then built a berm on the easement and blocked access.[2]

B. Proceedings

1. Reeves I

The parties litigated the validity and continued existence of Reeves's easement. In 2012 Godspeed filed a complaint against Reeves to quiet title. Godspeed also sought to enjoin Reeves from paving the road in the easement until the court could determine whether the easement was valid. The superior court granted a preliminary injunction, noting that Godspeed's tourist attraction draws a "significant number" of visitors during the tourist season.

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After ample motion practice the superior court determined that the deed to MS-1724 created a valid easement, to which Reeves and his company were successors-in-interest. The parties then proceeded to trial on whether the easement had been extinguished by prescription due to mining activities in the easement, including the placement of gravel piles, equipment, and a processing plant. The superior court found that the plant had operated for 15 years in the easement and that the plant's activities impeded travel in the easement. The court concluded that the easement was entirely extinguished by prescription because the plant unreasonably interfered with Reeves's use of the easement.

Both parties appealed.[3] Godspeed argued that the easement had never been created, while Reeves argued that the easement had not been terminated by prescription.[4]We held that a valid easement appurtenant[5] was created in the deed to MS-1724.[6] The clear intent of the deed was "to create an easement that was capable of being dedicated."[7]

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We also ruled that easements may be partially extinguished by prescription.[8] We held that the plant extinguished the part of the easement upon which it stood, but the other mining activities did not sufficiently interfere with the easement to extinguish it entirely.[9] Because there was a remaining question of where precisely the plant sat within the easement, we remanded for the superior court to determine the extent to which the plant occupied (and therefore terminated a portion of) the easement.[10]

2. On remand

The superior court enjoined Reeves from building his road until it could assess the plant's location in the easement and remand proceedings were complete. The court determined that the injunction was appropriate because Reeves was adequately protected: Reeves's parcel of land was not landlocked, so he could access his land through a different road.

The superior court held a trial on the location of the plant and issued its decision in December 2019. It found that Godspeed failed to show that the gold plant protruded into the easement; the court therefore concluded that no portion of the easement had been terminated. The court then recognized its responsibility to balance the parties' interests and determine whether Godspeed could use the easement without unreasonably interfering with Reeves's rights.[11] Because neither party had presented

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evidence on this issue, the court ordered Godspeed to submit a detailed plan showing how Godspeed proposed to make use of the easement in a manner reasonably compatible with Reeves's use of the easement. The court also ordered Reeves to file a response.

Both Godspeed and Reeves complied. In June 2020 the court held a hearing on Godspeed's plan. Godspeed notified the court that it would not be operating its railway tour in the summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing Reeves with "several more months of good weather, eight months of construction season without worr[ying]" about railway operations hindering construction. Reeves requested that the court lift the injunction to allow him to "immediately start construction and remov[e] things from this easement so that [he could] get something done th[at] summer."

Godspeed then addressed Reeves's concerns about the safety risks that the railway might pose to the public using the easement road. Godspeed promised to post a flagger at the crossing to hold traffic, which it stated would address the pertinent safety concerns. Godspeed also argued that its railway would pose minimal inconvenience to drivers on the road, as the train would not stop in the easement and would take no longer than 90 seconds to cross it.

Godspeed also challenged whether Reeves truly intended to dedicate the easement to the Borough. Reeves replied that it was "irrelevant" what his plans were; he might dedicate "tomorrow" or he might do so "next year" - "[t]he easement allows him to do it not on any time frame convenient to the servient estate [but] on his own time frame." The court asked Reeves if he was "ready to put a road in," "[r]egardless of what

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his future plans might be about dedication." Reeves responded yes, he was prepared to "start building it" as soon as the court "lift[ed] the injunction."

a. The superior court's initial reasonable accommodation order

Relying on Reeves's representations about his plans to immediately build the road, the superior court expedited its decision so that construction could begin that summer. In July 2020 the superior court issued an order requiring reasonable accommodation from both parties and vacating the preliminary injunction against Reeves.

As to Godspeed, the court required that it immediately remove its railway tracks, berms, and a steam pipe field display[12] from the easement so that Reeves could begin constructing a road. The court allowed Godspeed to reinstall the berms and tracks after road construction - but not the steam pipe field. Further, the berms (once reinstalled) were not to unduly impede the vision of drivers using the road. The court also prohibited the train from stopping in the easement. And the court allowed Godspeed to install wooden gates at the railway crossings with limitations: the gates would close to pause traffic only when the train crossed the road, but would remain open at all other times; the gates would never be locked; and the gates would be manually operated by Godspeed employees.

The court also required Godspeed to bear the full cost of removal and reinstallment, as well as any increased cost that Reeves reasonably incurred by constructing the road at the current grade of the railway crossings. And if Reeves dedicated the road, Godspeed would have to bear any increased costs of dedication

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necessitated by the presence of the railway...

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