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Chris Belstler and Dana Belstler v. Karen Sheler (Conine)

November 10, 2011

CHRIS BELSTLER AND DANA BELSTLER, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS/COUNTERDEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS/CROSS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
KAREN SHELER (CONINE), AND HOWARD CONINE, HUSBAND AND WIFE, DEFENDANTS/COUNTERPLAINTIFFS/ RESPONDENTS/CROSS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District, State of Idaho, Kootenai County. Hon. James R. Michaud and Hon. Lansing L. Haynes, District Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burdick, Chief Justice

2011 Opinion No. 117

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

Memorandum decisions regarding easements, vacated in part and remanded.

This case concerns the existence of two disputed roadways or easements over the Appellants Belstlers' property benefitting Respondents Conines. In resolving the appeal, we address the separate holdings of the Honorable James R. Michaud's original Memorandum Decision finding express easements over both the northern and southern easements and a prescriptive easement upon the northern easement; and the Honorable Lansing L. Haynes' subsequent Memorandum Decision after a motion for reconsideration and amendment of the original decision finding no express easements. We vacate in part, and remand.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Appellants Dana Belstler and Chris Belstler (the Belstlers), husband and wife, reside on a tract of land in Kootenai County. Respondents Karen Sheler and Howard Conine (the Conines), husband and wife, live in Washington and own real property that lies east of and abuts the Belstlers' Property. Both properties are accessed from Chandler Lane which begins just west of the Belstlers' southern boundary, heads northwest through other tracts of land, then loops around and heads east to the Belstlers' western boundary, and then continues northeast through the Belstlers' and the Conines' properties. The location and slope of Chandler Lane across the Conines' property does not function well with the layout of the Conines' property and the location of their improvements. The Conines' property consists of a flat upper area and a flat lower area, with steep land between the upper and lower areas. The Conines can access their property across the two disputed roadways located on the Belstlers' property. The southern road begins just north of the beginning of Chandler Lane and then heads northeast through a small tract of land owned by the Worley Fire District and the southern portion of the Belstler property. The northern road begins near where the Chandler Lane enters the western portion of the Belstler property and heads southeasterly across Belstlers' property to the improvements located on the Conine property.

The parcel now owned by the Belstlers was part of a larger tract of land owned and subdivided by Vaughn and Geraldine Sanders (the Sanders) in 1979. The Sanders created the roadway easement now known as Chandler Lane over the larger tract of land. On June 1, 1988, the Sanders entered into a title retaining contract and warranty deed with Kenneth Henry (Henry) for the property now owned by the Belstlers. The agreement for the sale between Sanders and Henry was recorded on June 8, 1988. A successively recorded document was labeled "Mutual Agreement for Easement for Ingress and Egress" (Easement Agreement). The Easement Agreement is dated June 6, 1988, and signed by the Sanders and Henry. The document purports to grant an easement from Sanders to Henry, and also the grant of an easement from Henry over the "Southerly part" and "Northerly part" of the "property that [Henry] is purchasing from [the Sanders]" to one of the Conines' predecessors in title, Linda Merwin. On June 3, 1988, the Sanders conveyed a tract of land to the Worley Fire District, over which the southern roadway ultimately reaches the southern portion of the Conines property; the warranty deed was recorded June 8, 1988, subsequent to the sale agreement and Easement Agreement. In June 1989, the warranty deed conveying the tract of land from Sanders to Henry (Sanders-Henry Deed) was recorded subject to "[a]ny and all easements, conditions and restrictions of record and easements of ingress and egress." On September 19, 2005, Henry conveyed the tract of land to the Belstlers. The Conines received title to their property on June 30, 1998, after Merwin had conveyed the property in 1990 to a third party.

Since purchasing the property in 1998, the Conines have used the upper and lower roads to cross the Belstler property and access their property. In the summer of 2006, the Belstlers requested that the Conines cease using both roads. The Conines ceased using the lower road, which had been cabled and locked by the Belstlers, but refused to cease using the upper road. The parties held discussions but were unsuccessful in resolving the dispute.

On April 9, 2007, the Belstlers filed a complaint, seeking to relocate the Conines' access and to permanently enjoin the Conines from using the current access. On August 8, 2007, the Conines answered that they have either an express easement of record or a prescriptive easement across the Belstlers' property. The Conines also counterclaimed, seeking a determination of their rights on the road and alleging damages due to the Belstlers seeking to unlawfully and unreasonably restrict their use of the road. On February 3, 2009, the Belstlers filed an amended complaint, asking the district court to determine the meaning of certain recorded documents and seeking to quiet title to the easement areas and enjoin defendants from using the easements. On February 17, 2009, the Conines filed an amended answer and counterclaim, seeking a determination that they possess an easement by prescription, an implied easement, or an express easement.

On September 21, 2009, a four day trial commenced before Hon. James Michaud. At trial, the Conines withdrew their claim for an implied easement. According to the district court, the parties agreed that the district court should adjudicate whether the Belstlers may move the easement pursuant to I.C. § 55-313 to a location further north on their property.

On December 30, 2009, the district court issued the first decision at question in this appeal. The district court found that the Easement Agreement expressly granted easements to both the upper roadway and the lower roadway with the intent to serve the Merwin property. In light of the Easement Agreement, as well as other documents, the district court found that the Conines, as successors in interest to Merwin, had express easement rights to both the upper and lower roadway and accordingly denied the Belstlers' claims to quiet title.

The district court also found that the Conines proved that they had a prescriptive easement to the upper road but not the lower road. Noting that the legislature modified the prescriptive claim statute from a five-year requirement to a twenty-year requirement in 2006, the district court determined that the Conines' ten-year period of use sufficed for the prescriptive period, because the Conines' rights vested in 2004 (five years after they purchased the property and began using the upper road) which was prior to the filing of this lawsuit in 2006.

Finally, pursuant to I.C. § 55-313, the district court enjoined the Belstlers from relocating the upper road upon determining that the proposed relocation is unreasonable and would injure the Conines due to the steep grade on which they would have to build a road.

On January 14, 2010, the Belstlers filed an amended motion for reconsideration pursuant to I.R.C.P. 52(b), oral argument was heard on March 16, 2010, and on April 21, 2010, the district court issued its decision. On reconsideration, Hon. Lansing Haynes affirmed Hon. James Michaud's ruling that the Conines hold a prescriptive easement for the upper road but held that no express easements existed. The district court held that the trial judge erred in concluding that the Easement Agreement was a collateral stipulation to the Sanders-Henry Deed, which therefore did not merge with the Sanders-Henry Deed. Rather, the district court held that the Easement Agreement is not a collateral stipulation and, therefore, the agreement merges with the Sanders- Henry Deed. The Belstlers timely appealed to this Court, followed by a cross appeal by the Conines.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

For motions to amend findings or to amend a judgment, this Court reviews under an abuse of discretion standard and a judgment will not be disturbed on appeal where substantial and competent evidence is present to support the court's findings. Miller v. Miller, 113 Idaho 415, 419, 745 P.2d 294, 298 (1987); Johnson v. Edwards, 113 Idaho 660, 662, 747 P.2d 69, 71 (1987); Bair v. Barron, 97 Idaho 26, 32, 539 P.2d 578, 584 (1975). "A trial court does not abuse its discretion if it (1) recognizes the issue as one of discretion, (2) acts within the boundaries of its discretion and applies the applicable legal standards, and (3) reaches the decision through an exercise of reason." Johannsen v. Utterbeck, 146 Idaho 423, ...


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