Smith Mountain Lake Yacht Club, Inc. v. Ramaker

Decision Date02 March 2001
Docket NumberRecord No. 000861.
Citation261 Va. 240,542 S.E.2d 392
PartiesSMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE YACHT CLUB, INC. v. James K. RAMAKER, et al.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Robert T. Wandrei (Radford & Wandrei, on brief), Bedford, for appellant.

Steven R. Grant, Bedford, for appellees.

Appalachian Power Co. (Michael K. Smeltzer; Frank K. Friedman; Woods, Rogers & Hazlegrove, Roanoke, on brief), amicus curiae in support of appellant.

Present CARRICO, C.J., and LACY, KEENAN, KOONTZ, KINSER, and LEMONS, JJ.

KEENAN, Justice.

This appeal is from a decree in which the chancellor held that a, certain landowner has the right to construct a dock over partially submerged property that an adjacent landowner claims to own.

This dispute arose between James K. Ramaker and Sandra W. Ramaker (collectively, the Ramakers), and a neighboring landowner, the Smith Mountain Lake Yacht Club, Inc. (the Yacht Club). The properties owned by the Ramakers and the Yacht Club respectively are in the vicinity of an inlet of Smith Mountain Lake in Bedford County (the Lake). The Yacht Club property is adjacent to the Ramaker property and directly abuts both sides of the inlet at all times, regardless of the water level of the Lake. The Ramaker property has about 12 feet of frontage on the end of the inlet only when the Lake is flooded to the "full pond" level.1

When the Ramakers began construction of a dock extending into the inlet, the Yacht Club filed a bill of complaint for injunctive relief, alleging that the Ramakers' dock extended over property owned by the Yacht Club. The Yacht Club sought to enjoin the Ramakers from constructing the dock over the property, which was partially submerged (partially submerged property). The Ramakers thereafter filed a separate bill of complaint seeking a determination of their riparian rights. The two suits were consolidated for trial.

After conducting evidentiary hearings, the chancellor concluded that the Ramakers had sufficient riparian rights to allow them to construct a dock extending over the partially submerged property into the inlet. The chancellor's holding was based on his determination that the Commonwealth, not the Yacht Club, was the owner of the partially submerged property. The chancellor, also ordered that the existing dock be removed because it extended outside the riparian zone fixed by the court.

Central to this dispute is the issue of ownership of land that was flooded to create Smith Mountain Lake, an artificial lake formed when the Appalachian Power Company (APCO) constructed a dam on the Roanoke River as part of a hydroelectric project. Before the land adjacent to the Roanoke River and its tributaries was flooded to create the Lake, certain parcels of land were condemned and APCO obtained flowage easements over other parcels from their respective landowners extending to the 800-foot elevation contour of the proposed Lake. Both the Ramakers and the Yacht Club hold their properties subject to flowage easements that were conveyed by their predecessors in title to APCO. These flowage easements granted APCO

the right to overflow and/or affect so much of said premises as may be overflowed and/or affected, continuously or from time to time in any manner whatsoever, as the result of the construction, existence, operation and/or maintenance of the aforesaid dam and/or power station, the impounding of the waters of said river and tributaries and/or the varying of the level of the so impounded waters by reason of the operation of said power station, including any pumping as part of such operation.

These flowage easements expressly reserved to the grantors "the right to possess and use said premises in any manner not inconsistent with the estate, rights and privileges herein granted to [APC0]...."

In 1965, after Smith Mountain Lake was created, the Yacht Club purchased a 51-acre parcel of land (the Yacht Club property) through which Buttery Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River, formerly flowed. When the Lake was created, Buttery Creek was flooded and became part of the Lake. The Yacht Club property was conveyed by a deed that referred to a survey plat that showed the location of Smith Mountain Lake as well as the centerline of Buttery Creek as it existed before the Lake was created.

In 1998, the Ramakers purchased about 101 acres of land (the Ramaker property) adjacent to the Yacht Club property. A survey plat of the Ramaker property depicts a small, unnamed branch or creek that formerly ran through the Ramaker property and emptied into what previously was Buttery Creek.

Although APCO has flowage easements over both the Ramaker property and the Yacht Club property extending to the 800-foot elevation contour, the Lake is considered to be at "full-pond" when it reaches the 795-foot elevation contour. When the Lake is at "full pond," the Ramaker property has about 12 feet of water frontage on the inlet. The record shows that the water level of the Lake frequently drops below "full pond" and has at times fallen lower than the 790-foot elevation contour. At the 793-foot elevation contour and at all lower water levels, the Ramaker property has no frontage on the inlet of the Lake. By contrast, the Yacht Club property has frontage on the inlet, regardless of the fluctuations in the Lake's water level.

The chancellor held that, under Code § 28.2-1200, the general public is permitted to use all land underlying the surface of Smith Mountain Lake, absent evidence of a special grant or compact. Based on this authority, the chancellor concluded that the Commonwealth owned the partially submerged property at issue, and that the Ramakers were entitled to build a dock over that property. The chancellor also noted the existence of APCO's flowage easement over the Ramaker property to the 800-foot elevation contour and stated:

To the extent rights are accorded the general public and [APCO], the property rights of the Ramakers are servient to [APCO's rights], at least at times when the lake level is at the 795-foot contour [i.e. at "full pond"], or higher. In my opinion, it would be fundamentally unfair for the Ramakers to incur this burden, without also incurring some corresponding benefit.

The chancellor concluded that the Ramakers have riparian rights at the 795-foot elevation contour or "full pond" level because, at that level, the inlet reaches their property boundary. The chancellor stated that it would be "illogical" to rule that the Ramakers cannot have access to the Lake from their property unless the Lake "essentially comes to them" by rising to the level of "full pond."

The chancellor concluded that the Ramakers' riparian rights should be fixed in accordance with the principles set forth in Langley v. Meredith, 237 Va. 55, 376 S.E.2d 519 (1989), and Groner v. Foster, 94 Va. 650, 27 S.E. 493 (1897). In applying the Groner formula, the chancellor used the 795-foot elevation contour as the shoreline or mean low-water mark, even though the court made no finding that this line was the location of actual mean low water. After making the calculations under the Groner formula, the chancellor concluded that the Ramaker property has a riparian zone extending from the 795-foot elevation contour that is 5 feet wide and about 68 feet long, and that the Ramakers are entitled to construct a dock within this zone. At "full pond," the dock approved by the chancellor would extend directly over the partially submerged property allegedly owned by the Yacht Club. The chancellor permanently enjoined the Yacht Club from interfering with the Ramakers' riparian rights and their construction of a dock within this defined riparian zone. The Yacht Club appealed from this decree.

The Yacht Club argues on appeal that the Commonwealth does not own the partially submerged property at issue, and that the chancellor erred in reaching this conclusion, which was based on his incorrect application of Code § 28.2-1200. The Yacht Club asserts that Code § 28.2-1200 applies only to bodies of water whose beds have not been conveyed previously to a private owner. The Yacht Club notes that the submerged property at issue was conveyed to the Club's predecessors in title before Smith Mountain Lake was created and the land bordering Buttery Creek was flooded. Thus, the Yacht Club argues that the chancellor erred in ruling that the partially submerged property, which was not condemned but merely is subject to an APCO easement, is owned by the Commonwealth and that the Ramakers may use this land to build their dock.

In response, the Ramakers argue that the chancellor correctly applied Code § 28.2-1200 in ruling that the partially submerged property belongs to the people of the Commonwealth because Smith Mountain Lake is a navigable body of water. The Ramakers also assert that the chancellor properly concluded that they have riparian rights allowing them to construct a dock extending over the partially submerged property at issue. They contend that because the level of the Lake rises and falls according to weather, water usage, and power needs, the chancellor properly extended their riparian rights to the 795-foot elevation contour, even though the water sometimes recedes to the point where their property does not touch the water. We disagree with the Ramakers' arguments.

The standard of review that we apply on appeal is well established. Under Code § 8.01-680, we will affirm the chancellor's decree unless it is plainly wrong or without...

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    ...whose beds remain the property of the Commonwealth in the absence of a special grant or compact.” Smith Mountain Lake Yacht Club, Inc. v. Ramaker, 261 Va. 240, 246, 542 S.E.2d 392, 395 (2001). 2. The right of jus publicum has sometimes been termed the “trust” or “public trust” theory by oth......
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    ...; Blake Constr. Co. v. Upper Occoquan Sewage Auth. , 266 Va. 564, 577, 587 S.E.2d 711, 718 (2003) ; Smith Mountain Lake Yacht Club v. Ramaker , 261 Va. 240, 246, 542 S.E.2d 392, 395 (2001) ; Government Emples. Ins. Co. v. Hall , 260 Va. 349, 355, 533 S.E.2d 615, 617 (2000) ; Commonwealth v.......
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