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David L. Caldwell and Kathy C. Caldwell, Husband and Wife v. Thomas W. Cometto and Lori M. Cometto

May 26, 2011

DAVID L. CALDWELL AND KATHY C. CALDWELL, HUSBAND AND WIFE;
LAWRENCE L. SEILER AND THERESA L. SEILER, HUSBAND AND WIFE; AND
PATRICIA ST. ANGELO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS-CROSS RESPONDENTS,
v.
THOMAS W. COMETTO AND LORI M. COMETTO, HUSBAND AND WIFE; AND DOES 1-5, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS-CROSS APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonner County. Hon. Charles Hosack, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: W. Jones, Justice

2011 Opinion No. 61

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of the district court is affirmed. The district court's order denying attorney fees is affirmed. No award of costs or attorney fees on appeal.

I. NATURE OF THE CASE

Appellants challenge the district court's refusal to allow the removal of trees within and adjacent to an access-road easement in favor of Appellants running over property belonging to their neighbors, the Comettos. Because there is substantial evidence that the trees do not unreasonably hinder maintenance or snow removal, the district court's order is affirmed. The district court's denial of the parties' requests for attorney fees also is affirmed, as neither party prevailed below.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This dispute involves several parcels of property in a forested rural portion of Bonner County, Idaho. An access road travels for roughly eight miles from the nearest county highway, crossing National Forest land along the way, before first reaching property belonging to Thomas and Lori Cometto, Respondents. The road enters the western edge of the Comettos' parcel and exits to the east, crossing onto one of two properties owned by David and Kathy Caldwell. It then proceeds through the Caldwells' second parcel and onward to land owned by Patricia St. Angelo and Lawrence and Theresa Seiler. St. Angelo, the Caldwells, and the Seilers are Appellants in this matter.

Until 1997, the access road ran in a straight line directly through the Comettos' parcel and was subject to a deeded easement benefiting Appellants. At that time, the Comettos rerouted the road so that it circumvented the buildings on their property, a project that added four new sharp turns to the road. The new road is also narrow, spanning just eleven to twelve feet in some places.

Shortly thereafter, two of the Appellants' predecessors in interest filed separate suits against the Comettos, alleging that the new road illegally injured their easement rights under I.C. § 55-313. To settle that litigation, in 2000 the Appellants and/or their predecessors in interest signed an easement agreement with the Comettos.*fn1 The agreement granted Appellants an easement over the newly constructed access road, "which easement is believed to lie within the West thirty (30) feet, the North thirty (30) feet, and the East thirty (30) feet of the Cometto Property." It was recorded and, by its terms, is appurtenant to the Appellants' land.

Appellants filed this action in October of 2007, seeking an order quieting title to the new easement at a full thirty feet in width, a declaratory judgment that the Comettos must upgrade the road to the same standards as the previous road, an injunction against placing obstacles in the right-of-way, and other relief. Just prior to the bench trial, Appellants moved to amend their pleading to add a quiet-title claim based on a different supposed sixty-foot-wide deeded easement. On the first day of trial, the court responded to the motion by bifurcating the proceedings to allow the parties to later address easement claims other than those arising from the easement agreement. A three-day trial followed, focusing exclusively on the scope of the easement agreement.*fn2

After trial, the district court issued an Amended Partial Judgment in which it quieted title to the easement in favor of Appellants, incorporating a new professional survey of the road.*fn3 The court held that the agreement conveyed a primary easement over the new travelway, as well as a three-foot-wide secondary easement along each edge of the road up to a maximum of thirty total feet in width. It held that, in areas where the travelway was less than fourteen feet wide, the secondary easement would expand so that the total easement width would equal twenty feet. Although the partial judgment required the Comettos to keep debris and obstacles out of the easement, it expressly precluded Appellants from removing any of the nineteen mature trees from the secondary easement. The Amended Partial Judgment included a Certificate of Final Judgment as to Appellants' claims under the easement agreement pursuant to I.R.C.P. 54(b)(1). The court also issued an order denying the parties' cross-motions for costs and attorney fees, holding that there had been no prevailing party.

Appellants appealed from the Amended Partial Judgment and from the order denying their motion for attorney fees.*fn4 They assert that there is no substantial evidence supporting the district court's refusal to allow mature trees to be removed from within the secondary easement. They also contend that the district court's ruling on attorney fees was premature, as they have further claims remaining to be resolved. The Comettos respond that Appellants are simply asking this Court to second-guess the trial court's findings regarding the trees along the access road. ...


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