JOHN L. WEBB, SR., et ux.
G. PHILIP NOWAK, et ux.
Circuit Court for Washington County Case # 21-C-09-35008-OT
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, [*] Bell, JJ.
An old adage claims that "good fences make good neighbors." The present case may stand for the corollary principle that disputes over fences virtually guarantee unneighborly outcomes.
Petitioners, John and Ruth Webb (the "Webbs"), believe that they hold title to a 0.26-acre tract of land (the "Disputed Land") in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Webbs contend that the Disputed Land is a part of three contiguous parcels acquired by the Webbs in 2000. The Disputed Land abuts and shares its western boundary with property owned by Respondents G. Philip and Barbara Nowak (the "Nowaks"), who claim also title to the Disputed Land. The Nowaks acquired their property in 1988. The parties dispute the location of the western boundary line of the Webbs' property (and, therefore, the eastern boundary line of the Nowaks' property), the resolution of which dispute will decide ultimately the rightful owner of the Disputed Land; hence this litigation.
On 11 August 2009, the Webbs filed suit in the Circuit Court for Washington County against the Nowaks. The timing of the filing of the suit was precipitated by the removal by the Nowaks of merchantable timber from the Disputed Land. The Webbs sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as damages under a common law theory for trespass. The Nowaks filed a counter-complaint seeking, among other relief, a declaratory judgment that they hold fee simple title to the Disputed Land and therefore owe nothing to the Nowaks for the removal of the timber.
The parties' disagreements stem from conflicting interpretations of a 1928 recorded deed from the heirs of Samuel Miller to Alice Wolf (the "Wolf deed"), a predecessor owner in the relevant chain of title. The Wolf deed describes a fence in a certain location as constituting the western boundary line of the property conveyed to Wolf. During the first half of 2007, the Nowaks commissioned Frederic M. Frederick, a local surveyor, to prepare a survey of their land (the "Frederick Survey"). The Frederick Survey located the western boundary line of the Webbs' property along the remnants of a fence line (the "Existing Fence"), approximately 300 feet west from a stake at the west side of the "County road" and running from the stake in a northwesterly direction. Frederick and the Respondents assert that the Existing Fence is the same fence described in the Wolf deed. A 2000 survey prepared for the Webbs (the "Zenith Survey"), by contrast, placed the contentious boundary line 77 to 140 feet beyond the Existing Fence. The Zenith Survey harmonizes with the Webbs' belief that the fence described in the Wolf deed ceased to exist at some point after 1928 and before 2000 and, thus, should be treated as a physical monument lost to antiquity, leaving the distance call in the Wolf deed as controlling. Thus, according to the Webbs, the western boundary line of their property extends beyond the Existing Fence described in the Frederick Survey. The Webbs contend that the Existing Fence did not exist in 1928.
The Circuit Court for Washington County entered judgment in favor of the Nowaks, finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that the western boundary of the Webbs' property was, in fact, the Existing Fence referred to in the Frederick Survey. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed in an unreported opinion. The Webbs filed a petition for writ of certiorari, challenging the judgment of the intermediate appellate court on the grounds that it not only erred in its determination as to the location of the disputed boundary, but also applied the incorrect standard of review in doing so. We granted the petition, 429 Md. 303, 55 A.3d 906 (2012), to consider the following questions:
1)Is the principle that the interpretation of a deed is a question of law to be considered de novo on appellate review inapplicable in boundary disputes, as the Court of Special Appeals opined?
2) May the preference for monuments over courses and distances be applied to reduce the amount of a grant, as the Court of Special Appeals determined?
3)Was the trial court's interpretation of the deed incorrect?
A. The Wolf Deed
The Disputed Land (and the undisputed land owned now by the Webbs and the Nowaks) was originally part of 236 acres acquired by Samuel Miller in 1883. Miller's heirs sold from Miller's property a lot with frontage on a private lane to Alice Wolf in 1928. The private lane intersects Millers Sawmill Road on the latter's west side. Millers Sawmill Road is referred to in the Wolf deed and subsequent relevant deeds as the "County road." The conveyance from Miller's heirs to Wolf is the point of departure for the dispute between the Webbs and Nowaks.
The Webbs and Nowaks contest the beginning point of the front portion of the lot formerly owned by Wolf as described in the Wolf deed. The calls of the ...