Williams v. Stillwater Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs
|29 June 2021
|490 P.3d 1234,2021 MT 159
|Montana Supreme Court
|Gordon WILLIAMS, Gale Madler, Timothy Russell, Joyce Kelley, and Sam Blaylock, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. STILLWATER BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, Defendant and Appellee.
For Appellants: David K. W. Wilson, Jr., Morrison Sherwood Wilson & Deola, PLLP, Helena, Montana
For Appellee: Jacqueline R. Papez, Samuel J. King, Doney Crowley P.C., Helena, Montana, Nancy L. Rohde, Stillwater County Attorney, Columbus, Montana, Raymond Kuntz, Kuntz Law Office, P.C., Red Lodge, Montana
¶1 Gordon Williams, Gale Madler, Timothy Russell, and Joyce Kelley (the "Plaintiff Landowners")1 appeal from the Order on Writ of Review from the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court, Stillwater County, affirming the decision of the Stillwater Board of County Commissioners (the "Board") to abandon a portion of Eerie Drive. The Landowners raise two issues on appeal:
¶2 We affirm.
¶3 This case concerns a dispute about the Stillwater Board of County Commissioners’ decision to abandon a portion of Eerie Drive located in Section 29, Township 2 South, Range 20 East, Stillwater County, Montana. Eerie Drive is a short, dead-end county road located outside Columbus, Montana, on the south side of the Yellowstone River in Stillwater County.
¶4 The property owners along Eerie Drive are neighbors who own property located between Highway 78 and the southern bank of the Yellowstone River in Sections 28 and 29, Township 2 South, Range 20 East. David Carse owns a large tract of property on the southern banks of the Yellowstone River. Timothy Russell and Joyce Kelley ("Russell/Kelley") own a smaller piece of land, surrounded by the Carse property on three sides in the in the southeast corner of the Carse property. John Matovich owns the property south of the Carse and Russell/Kelley properties, extending to Highway 78. Linda Bay owns the riverfront property east of the Carse property. Gale Madler and Gordon Williams ("Madler/Williams") own the property bordering Highway 78 east of the Matovich property and south of the Bay property. Sam Blaylock owns the property east of the Bay and Madler/Williams properties. The point at which the Blaylock, Bay, and Madler/Williams properties meet is referred to as the "common corner."
¶5 Eerie Drive runs northeast from its intersection with Highway 78 through the Matovich and Madler/Williams properties. On the Madler/Williams property the road curves northwest toward the Russell/Kelley property before again turning northeast and running across the southeast corner of the Carse property. The road then continues east through the Bay property, where it is disputed as to whether it ends on the Bay property or continues to the common corner of the Bay, Blaylock, and Madler/Williams properties.
¶6 On or about November 29, 2017, Carse petitioned the Board to abandon the approximately 400-foot portion of Eerie Drive that runs through his property. On January 8, 2018, the Board issued a letter acknowledging receipt of Carse's petition and appointing a County Commissioner and the Clerk and Recorder/County Surveyor for Stillwater County as viewers to investigate the proposed abandonment. The viewers submitted a report, concluding Eerie Drive is not developed or maintained and is being used to access private property. The report included maps and photographs taken by the viewers showing the current condition of the road.
¶7 The Board held public hearings regarding the petition on February 6, February 20, February 27, and March 13, 2018, at which it heard public testimony, reviewed comments submitted in writing, and examined historical documentation of the road. All the Plaintiff Landowners were heard either by appearing at the hearings, filing written comments, or both, during the Board's deliberations. The main contention of the Plaintiff Landowners throughout the proceedings was Eerie Drive runs through the Bay property to the common corner, giving Blaylock and Madler/Williams access to their northern property lines from the county road beyond the portion of the road that runs across the Carse property. Because Blaylock and Madler/Williams had access to their properties from the common corner, they maintained the Board could not abandon the road under § 7-14-2615(4), MCA, without their agreement. Carse maintained Eerie Drive terminates on the Bay property and does not extend to the common corner to provide Blaylock and Madler/Williams with access to their properties. Williams and Russell/Kelley also argued the Russell/Kelley property abutted 125 feet of the portion of Eerie Drive Carse proposed to abandon based on a survey completed in 1975. Carse maintained that portion of road does not touch the Russell/Kelley property, as shown on other historic and modern surveys he provided. Russell/Kelley further opposed the abandonment due to their concern Carse's plans to improve the road would increase the potential for flooding on their property. Carse maintained only two landowners were affected by the abandonment—Carse and Bay. Bay has a recorded easement to cross the Carse property and assented to the abandonment.
¶8 Before the Board were various historic petitions, resolutions, and certificates of survey, which included an 1893 petition to establish and order establishing a public highway "[b]eginning at or near the southwestern corner of the northeast quarter (1/4) of the northeast quarter (1/4) of Section Twenty-Eight (28), Town. 2 South, R. 20 E." and continuing in a southwesterly direction; a 1919 approved petition to abandon a section of a county road "beginning at SW corner of the NE1/4NW1/4 of Section 28, Twp. 2 S - R. 20 E. thence East about 3/4 of mile to present County Road"; a June 4, 1975 Resolution from the Stillwater Board of County Commissioners, stating "the roadway designated as a county road on Plat #171893 is hereby designated and acknowledged to be a county road of the County of Stillwater and State of Montana as the same has been used and considered to be for many years past" and the attached Plat # 171893, surveyed in 1958 and depicting Eerie Drive running from state secondary highway 307 (now Highway 78), not abutting the eastern border of the Russell/Kelley property, and terminating on the Bay property before the common corner; a survey completed in 1975 depicting Eerie Drive abutting the eastern border of the Russell/Kelley property; and additional surveys from 1958, 1979, and 2016 depicting Eerie Drive running through the Bay property up to or past the common corner.2
¶9 At a regular meeting of the Board on March 13, 2018, the Board unanimously voted to abandon the approximately 400-foot portion of Eerie Drive crossing the Carse property. At the meeting, Carse "stated he is not trying to block anyone from the north fence line" and agreed to provide an easement across his property to the objecting landowners.
¶10 The Plaintiff Landowners filed suit challenging the road abandonment shortly thereafter, seeking a declaratory judgment the Board's order was invalid. The District Court dismissed the Plaintiff Landowners’ complaint, finding the proper remedy for challenging a road abandonment decision of a board of county commissioners is a writ of review. The Plaintiff Landowners then filed the subject suit on June 20, 2019, seeking a writ of review of the Board's decision. The District Court held a hearing on October 17, 2019, on the issue of whether to order production of the Board's records under the writ, which it ordered on October 28, 2019. Following the production of records, the court held a hearing on January 9, 2020, and heard argument from the Plaintiff Landowners and the Board. On April 28, 2020, the District Court affirmed the Board's decision to abandon the road and dismissed the Plaintiff Landowners’ petition for a writ of review. This appeal follows.
¶11 A district court's decision to grant or deny a petition for a writ of review is discretionary. See § 27-25-102, MCA. The district court's review of the decision of the inferior tribunal, board, or officer on a writ of review is limited to determining whether an inferior tribunal, board, or officer exceeded its jurisdiction or whether the inferior tribunal, board, or officer regularly pursued its authority. Sections 27-25-102(2), -303, MCA. On appeal, our review is limited to the same questions.
¶12 1. Did the District Court err in concluding the Board did not exceed its jurisdiction by abandoning a portion of Eerie Drive?
¶13 The Plaintiff Landowners argue the District Court misconstrued the factual evidence in the record and misinterpreted § 7-14-2615(4), MCA, in determining the Board did not exceed its jurisdiction in abandoning a portion of Eerie Drive. Citing Bugli v. Ravalli County , 2019 MT 154, 396 Mont. 271, 444 P.3d 399 ( Bugli II ), the Plaintiff Landowners contend the review of whether the Board exceeded its jurisdiction under a writ of review goes to the merits of the Board's decision. The Plaintiff Landowners, thus, contend the District Court erred when it did not consider the substantial evidence the Plaintiff Landowners submitted to the Board that demonstrated Eerie Drive extends to the common corner and part of the abandoned road runs along the eastern border of the Russell/Kelley property. The Plaintiff Landowners contend because substantial evidence demonstrates Eerie Drive extends to the common corner and part of the abandoned road runs along the eastern border of the Russell/Kelley property, the Board could not abandon the road...
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