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Breeding v. Koste

Court of Appeals of Maryland

May 22, 2015

OTTIS E. BREEDING, JR., ET AL.
v.
CHRISTIAN NICHOLAS KOSTE

Argued: April 7, 2015

Circuit Court for Caroline County Case No. 05-C-10-014160

Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts, JJ.

Watts, J.

To establish a prescriptive easement, [1] a claimant must show adverse, exclusive, and uninterrupted use of another's real property for twenty years. See Banks v. Pusey, 393 Md. 688, 699, 904 A.2d 448, 454 (2006). Where an easement is claimed on land that is unimproved or otherwise in a general state of nature, there is a legal presumption that the claimant's use is by the owner's permission. See Clickner v. Magothy River Ass'n Inc., 424 Md. 253, 281, 35 A.3d 464, 482 (2012). This presumption, first referenced by this Court in 1865, has been termed the "woodlands exception, " and, to date, has been applied only in cases involving easements. Id. at 281-82, 35 A.3d at 482 (citation omitted).

Here, we decide: (I) whether the "woodlands exception" applies to adverse possession; and, if so, (II) whether the "woodlands exception" applies under the circumstances of this case.

We hold that: (I) the "woodlands exception" applies to adverse possession where the land at issue is unimproved or otherwise in a general state of nature; and (II) the "woodlands exception" does not apply under this case's circumstances because the land at issue is neither unimproved nor otherwise in a general state of nature.

BACKGROUND

Due to the claim's nature, a detailed recitation of the case's procedural and land transfer history is necessary.

On September 13, 2010, Christian Nicholas Koste ("Koste"), Respondent, filed in the Circuit Court for Caroline County ("the circuit court") a "Complaint for Title by Adverse Possession and Bill to Quiet Title" against adjoining landowners, Ottis Breeding, Jr., James "Rick" Breeding, and Terry Breeding (together, "the Breedings"), Petitioners, concerning the ownership of a piece of land known as the Landing on Watts Creek ("the Landing"). The Landing is a triangular parcel of land, more than 10, 000 square feet in area, that abuts the southern side of a small body of water known as Watts Creek. The Landing is located between the northeast corner of Koste's property ("the Koste property") and the northwest corner of the Breedings' property ("the Breeding property"). The Koste property and the Breeding property are adjoining tracts of land that are bound to the north by Watts Creek. The Koste property is mostly wooded; and Koste resides in a home that overlooks the Landing. The Breeding property is used for surface mining.[2]

On October 22, 2010, the Breedings filed an answer to the complaint. On November 22, 2010, the Breedings filed a "Counter Complaint to Quiet Title and for Relief from Trespass, " alleging that they held title to the Landing and that Koste's use of the Landing constituted trespass.[3]

Beginning on May 14, 2012, the circuit court conducted a five-day bench trial, which included the circuit court's viewing the Landing.[4] On November 19, 2012, the circuit court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order, ruling that Koste had established a claim to the Landing by adverse possession.

As to the Koste property, the circuit court made the following findings of fact, which we summarize. In December 1944, Koste's grandparents purchased the Koste property, which consisted of 125 acres of land, and moved into a home on the western end of the Koste property. Shortly afterward, however, Koste's grandparents built a new home in the middle of the Koste property, close to Watts Creek. By 1950, Koste's grandparents had moved into the new home. In 1962, Koste's grandparents sold approximately thirteen acres of land, including the land that contained their old home. From 1975 to 1985, from age five to fifteen, Koste lived with his grandparents at the Koste property. From 1985 to 1988, Koste regularly visited his grandparents at the Koste property; and after graduating from high school in 1988, Koste continued to visit, though not as frequently. In Koste's grandfather's last will and testament, executed in February 1989, Koste's grandfather provided for conveyance of his interest in approximately forty acres of the Koste property to Koste and another grandson. In 1999, Koste's grandfather died. In 2004, a portion of the Koste property was conveyed to Koste. On October 15, 2004, Koste applied for a building permit to construct a home. On October 14, 2008, Koste received an occupancy permit for his newly constructed home.

As to the Breeding property, the circuit court made the following findings of fact, which we summarize. When Koste's grandparents purchased the Koste property in 1944, Beatrice Butler owned the Breeding property. In June 1946, Butler conveyed the Breeding property to Elizabeth MacDonald, who, several months later, conveyed the Breeding property to Leander and Madeline Jeffrey. In 1952, the Jeffreys conveyed the Breeding property to Madeline and Charles Birch. In 1953, the Birches conveyed the Breeding property to Chauncey and Marion Downes. In 1971, the Downeses conveyed the Breeding property to Mathias and Regina Mueller, who created a gravel pit on the Breeding property. On March 10, 1987, the Muellers conveyed the Breeding property to the Breedings and their father as joint tenants; the Breedings and their father continued the use of the Breeding property as a gravel pit. The Breedings' father died, and, by deed dated December 28, 2006, title to the Breeding property changed from the Breedings' holding the Breeding property as joint tenants to the Breedings' holding the Breeding property as tenants in common.

In the Memorandum Opinion and Order, the circuit court also made the following detailed findings of fact concerning the Landing:[5]

[] The Landing's actual size or dimension is not definit[]e[, ] as there is no known survey of the Landing itself. As a result of th[e] present litigation, Koste retained the services of Lane Engineering to establish the common boundary line between the Koste/Breeding property[, ] and[, ] in a survey [in] November 2011, an area is depicted as the "land as occupied, " consisting of .241 acres. This area includes, however, additional land [that is] not part of the Landing to the east, so one can reasonably infer that the Landing is less than .241 acres.
[] The Landing[, ] as viewed by the Court on May 14th[, ] is adequately depicted in several pictures taken by [the] parties. Save for a few pictures of the Landing taken by the Downes family in 1963, no other photograph[s] exist.
[] The Court's view involved an approach to the Landing from two different angles. The first approach was from the east through the Breeding gravel pit operation, traveling on four wheelers, stopping at the top of the Landing. The second approach by car started at Pealiquor Road, at the entrance to [the] Koste[] property, walking down the private roadway located slightly to the west of the common boundary line shared by the parties.
[] Approaching from either direction, one must walk down an incline to reach the Landing[, ] which is essentially level with Watts Creek. A loop [that] could be characterized as a path or narrow roadway is evident. From Koste's home[, ] a path slopes down to the Landing.
[] Prior to the construction of [Koste's] home, the roadway or lane on the Koste property that accesses his home connected with the head of the loop on the Landing. Construction of this road was started by [Koste's grandfather] in the late 1940s to access the Landing. In order to accommodate the need for a septic field, that portion of the roadway was abandoned[, ] and the roadway now veers northwest towards Koste's home. The old roadway connecting to the loop remains somewhat visible[, ] although nature has clearly reclaimed the area.
[] Several live trees stand in the middle of the loop[, ] along with low lying shrubs, primarily mountain laurel, as well as a few dead trees. Chained around a beech tree is a boat. Also in the middle of the loop is a pile of decaying wood, which appears to be building material[, ] as opposed to fallen or cut timber. Standing at the Landing, looking out over [Watts C]reek[, ] a floating dock juts out on its eastern end. To the left or west of the Landing, the remnants of old pilings are barely visible in [Watts C]reek.
[] Prior to walking down the incline towards the Landing, approaching from the Breeding property[, ] is a metal stake with an aging "No Trespassing" sign facing the Breeding property. The sign is clearly depicted on photographs . . . . Additionally[, ] as depicted [i]n [] photographs . . ., there are remnants of another sign, not legible, at the eastern edge of the Landing on its east as one approaches from the Breeding property.
[Koste's grandmother], who at the time of her deposition in July 2011 was 95½ years of age, dates the placement of the signs to shortly after she and [Koste's grandfather] purchased the [Koste] property [in 1944]. [Koste's grandfather] walked the [Koste] property's boundaries with Wilbert Merriken and placed the stakes in their present location. These stakes start at the Pealiquor Road end of the boundary line and are staggered along the boundary line. [Koste's grandmother]'s visit to the [Koste] property prior to her deposition confirmed her memory of these markers.

(Record references omitted). In its analysis, the circuit court set forth additional findings of fact concerning the Landing, as well as conclusions of law, including the following:

According to [Koste's grandmother], the only person whose memory of the area dates back to the late 1940s, the Landing was visible[, ] but not accessible[, ] when she and [Koste's grandfather] purchased the [Koste] property. . . . She also remembered that construction of the road system presently visible, including the road bordering the common boundary with the Breedings, was started as early as 1945, when [Koste's grandfather] arranged to use the inmates from the local jail for labor. [Koste's grandmother] also recalled that [Koste's grandfather] cleared the Landing, creating a loop or turn-around so that boats and a pick-up truck could make its way down and back. . . .
The testimony of both [Koste's grandmother and Koste's father], concerning the early build out of the Landing road is also corroborated by the aerial photos of the Koste property submitted by [the Breedings]. . . . Also of significance to support this Court's conclusion that the road system was built as claimed by [Koste] is the testimony of Warren Downes. Shortly after his family purchased the property when he was a teenager, he recalls [Koste's grandfather's] driving a truck to the Landing and speaking with his father. This encounter occurred sometime between 1953 and 1958. Similarly[, ] in ...

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