Reitsma v. Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC, 2000-306-Appeal.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtFLANDERS, Justice.
Citation774 A.2d 826
Decision Date20 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. 2000-306-Appeal.,2000-306-Appeal.

774 A.2d 826

Jan REITSMA et al.

No. 2000-306-Appeal.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

June 20, 2001.

774 A.2d 827
774 A.2d 828

Michael L. Rubin, Alan Shoer, Providence, Joseph S. Larisa, Jr., for Plaintiff.

Barry J. Kusinitz, John B. Webster, Warwick, for Defendant.

774 A.2d 829

FLANDERS, Justice.

Can the state government involuntarily divest owners of private property other than by eminent domain or by condemnation? Yes, we hold, because, like private parties, the government itself can acquire an easement by prescription or title by adverse possession over property that was otherwise privately owned during the period of the taking. To do so, it must establish actual, open, notorious, hostile, and continuous use of the property under a claim of right for ten years, as required by G.L.1956 § 34-7-1. See, e.g., Talbot v. Town of Little Compton, 52 R.I. 280, 286, 160 A. 466, 469 (1932) (holding that municipality, on behalf of the public, "openly, notoriously and uninterruptedly used the entire tract [of a beach] under a claim of right for a length of time far in excess of the statutory period for obtaining title by adverse uses").

In this case, acting through an executive department now known as the Department of Environmental Management, the state1 built a boat ramp in 1965 on a waterfront lot that it acquired in1964. The property and the boat ramp abutted an artificially created body of water called Echo Lake in Glocester. Although the record does not reveal exactly when it did so, the state also erected and maintained signs near the boat ramp that purported to regulate the public's use of the lot, the ramp, and the lake. At all times material to this case, the defendant corporation, Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC (corporation) — or one of its predecessors in title — has been Echo Lake's owner of record. For thirty-two years, from 1965 through 1997, the state maintained and operated its lakeside property so that members of the public could park their vehicles there and then use the ramp as a point of access to the lake for various recreational activities, including boating and fishing. Over that period, innumerable members of the public and other lakeside property owners have used the ramp as a means of access to the lake for such purposes — without interruption, objection, or interference by the corporation or by any of its predecessors in title. Not until 1997 — when it posted a "NO TRESPASSING" sign — did the corporation — or, for that matter, any of the lake's previous owners — communicate any objection to the state's or to the public's use of this boat ramp as a means for boats to access the lake for recreational purposes.

Nevertheless, a Superior Court trial justice — after reviewing the evidence in a nonjury trial — rejected the state's claim to having adversely possessed the lake-bottom property beneath the boat ramp and to having acquired, on behalf of the public, a prescriptive easement to the use of the ramp for lake access. The court concluded that the state's placement of a substantial portion of the ramp on the bottom of the lake and the public's use thereof had been merely permissive. More specifically, the trial justice found that the state had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the collective or individual use of the ramp for access to the lake had been pursued under a claim of right or that it was inany way hostile, open, notorious, or adverse to the interests of the lake owners. For the reasons prescribed below, these conclusions, we hold, were clearly erroneous and, therefore, must be reversed.

Facts and Travel

We reproduce, in pertinent part, the facts and travel of the case, as found by

774 A.2d 830
the trial justice and included in his decision of the case

"The following facts are generally not in dispute. Pascoag Reservoir, also known as Echo Lake, is an artificially created body of water and is located in the towns of Burrillville and Glocester, Rhode Island. The lake covers between 355 and 387 acres of water surface and is over two miles in length and has over ten miles of shoreline.

"The lake is ringed by approximately 300 private homes, two for-profit businesses and two camps for children operated by religious organizations.

"In 1964, the state purchased a lot abutting the lake of approximately one and three quarter acres. In 1965 the State constructed a boat ramp facility to permit members of the public to launch boats from the ramp onto the lake.

"The State has continuously owned and maintained this boat ramp facility to the present day.

"The boat ramp itself is 30 feet wide with a 12 foot traction surface. It is 48 feet long, 38 feet of which is submerged at ordinary high water. There is also a `prop-wash zone,' an additional area which extends 6 feet outward from the submerged end of the traction surface and which lies on the lake bed under water.

"The defendant Corporation has claimed ownership of the lake since 1983. The Corporation's predecessors in title who created the lake, did so in 1860 upon lands purchased or owned by the Corporation's predecessors in title and flooded by a dam to create the lake.

"Said predecessors in title were an association of mill owners who created the lake to provide power to its mill interests in the area.

"These predecessors in title maintained the dam, #016, and controlled the level of the lake uninterruptedly from the lake's creation to its sale to the Corporation in 1983, lowering the lake in winter and raising the lake in summer.

"Since 1983 the Corporation has been assessed real property taxes on the lake by both the towns of Burrillville and Glocester.

"Since 1983 the Corporation has continually paid the taxes levied by both towns and has conducted the maintenance and upkeep of the lake since its purported ownership in 1983.

"Lakefront property owners have been using the lake for swimming, boating and fishing for a substantial period of time.

"Members of the general public, as well as lakefront land owners, have accessed the lake via the State owned and maintained boat ramp since its construction in 1965.

"The State owned boat ramp facility provides the only public access venue for the public to access the lake for boating, fishing, and swimming — and is utilized in summer — and to a lesser degree, in winter for winter related activities.

"On or about July 28, 1997, the Corporation erected a `no trespassing' sign in the vicinity of the State's boat ramp. In a letter dated July 30, 1997, the Corporation notified the State that it was `withdrawing any express or implied permission to use the reservoir. No further access by the general public should be permitted through the boat ramp.'

"Other issues arose during this time frame which caused a justice of this Court to issue an order temporarily restraining the Corporation from altering the water levels of the lake without permission from the State's Department of Environmental Management."

774 A.2d 831
In addition, the trial court found as follows

"In support of its claim that the general public has gained a prescriptive easement for the recreational use of the lake for boating, swimming, and fishing; the State produced at least twelve witnesses to testify at trial from its total of 21 witnesses called. These witnessestestified to years of unfettered access to the lake both prior to and subsequent to the construction of the boat ramp. The witnesses came from the ranks of waterfront lot owners, persons who operated for-profit businesses on, or dependent upon the lake, persons who operated profit and nonprofit campgrounds along the shores of the lake and other members of the general public who came from afar who testified to their use of the boat ramp and the lake itself for fishing, swimming, and the like.

"The witnesses collectively testified that they never sought nor received permission to use the lake or were in any way prohibited or limited in their use of the lake for the recreational purposes customarily engaged in on a lake of this type. The witnesses testified to long years of usage and familiarity as well as shorter more infrequent uses. Many lakefront dwellers testified that the boat ramp was their only means of access to the lake either because of the configuration of their lots or the size of their boats. The State also provided testimony that the value of the lakefront lots, including those sold by the Corporation over the years, was enhanced by the accessibility of the lake either via the boat ramp or the waterfront lots."

After the corporation posted its no-trespassing sign in 1997, the state filed a complaint and petition for injunctive relief against the defendant corporation. The state alleged violations of the Freshwater Wetlands Act, G.L.1956 §§ 2-1-18 through 2-1-24, and asserted that it had acquired an easement to the lake by virtue of, inter alia, the doctrines of easement by prescription and adverse possession. The corporation soon answered and filed a counterclaim alleging inverse condemnation, trespass, and violations of its substantive due process rights pursuant to the federal and state constitutions and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Over the corporation's objection and in response to the state's motion to do so, the court severed the state's allegations pertaining to the violations of the Freshwater Wetlands Act from the rest of this case. The trial justice also voluntarily dismissed the corporation's inverse condemnation claim, without prejudice. Thereafter, at the conclusion of the trial, it entered apartial final judgment in favor of the corporation under Rule 54(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. The state has appealed from this judgment.


We have long recognized that "one who claims an easement by prescription has the burden of establishing actual, open, notorious, hostile...

To continue reading

Request your trial
111 cases
  • Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC v. Rhode Island, C.A. 01-505L.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
    • 20 Agosto 2002
    ...easement to use the boat ramp to obtain access to the Reservoir for recreational purposes. Reitsma v. Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC, 774 A.2d 826, 838 (R.I.2001)(3-2) (overruling the trial court). The effect of that decision, and particularly the finding of a public easement by prescription,......
  • Ciampi v. Zuczek, C.A. No. 07-256 S.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
    • 12 Febrero 2009 asserting that the Page 266 Town has acquired an easement over the ditch by prescription. See Reitsma v. Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC., 774 A.2d 826, 831 (R.I.2001) (holding that the state may acquire property through adverse At the outset, there is a question as to whether the Defendant......
  • Martin v. Wilson
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Rhode Island
    • 3 Octubre 2018
    ...... Reitsma v . Pascoag Reservoir & Dam , LLC , 774 A.2d ......
  • DW Aina Le‘a Dev., LLC v. Hawai'i Land Use Comm'n
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Hawai'i
    • 17 Diciembre 2020
    ...of a zoning ordinance[.]" 27 Am. Jur. 2d Eminent Domain § 733 (2020) (emphasis added); see also Reitsma v. Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC, 774 A.2d 826, 838 (R.I. 2001) (noting that adverse possession statutes of limitation have been applied to physical takings claims). We agree with the Unit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT