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Kevin P. Sheehan v. New Hampshire Department of

November 15, 2012

KEVIN P. SHEEHAN
v.
NEW HAMPSHIRE DEPARTMENT OF RESOURCES AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conboy, J.

a.m. on the morning of their release. The direct address of the court's home page is: http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme.

Argued: September 20, 2012

The petitioner, Kevin P. Sheehan, appeals an order of the Superior Court (Lewis, J.) entering judgment in favor of the respondent, the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED), on his request for declaratory, injunctive, and other relief. We affirm.

The trial court found the following facts. On November 13, 2008, the petitioner purchased property in Derry (the Property). The Property abuts Jackman Road, which is a class VI town road and not in good condition. The Property is connected to Warner Hill Road by a .44 mile tract of land that is under DRED's control as part of its statewide trail system. See RSA ch. 216-F (2011).

In the 1930's, the Boston & Maine Railroad (B&M) owned this tract as part of a larger railroad corridor. In the mid-to-late 1930's, B&M sought to abandon the corridor to the State. After extended negotiations with B&M and adjacent abutters, the State acquired the corridor through a mechanism known as a Commissioners' Return of Highway Layout. The purpose expressed by the State in acquiring the corridor was to create a highway over its length. Thereafter, the New Hampshire Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) controlled the corridor. The DPWH removed the railroad ties from the corridor, but improved only certain portions; the portion of the corridor abutting the Property remains an unpaved dirt trail.

In 1975, the Governor and Executive Council transferred the unimproved portions of the corridor from DPWH to DRED for recreational trail use. See RSA 216-F:1, III. Before and after the 1975 transfer, the prior owners of the Property utilized the corridor to access the Property by non-recreational motor vehicles. In July 2008, however, before the petitioner purchased the Property, DRED moved a gate nearer to Warner Hill Road, effectively blocking all non- recreational motor vehicles from using the corridor to access the Property. Currently, the portion of the corridor abutting the Property is used only for recreational activities.

Before purchasing the Property, the petitioner understood that the State claimed ownership of the corridor and that a gate blocked non-recreational motor vehicle access. After purchasing the Property, the petitioner filed this equity action seeking to bar DRED from prohibiting or interfering with non- recreational motor vehicle access over the portion of the corridor separating the Property from Warner Hill Road. The petitioner alleges that DRED has violated RSA 216-F:2, II.

The superior court conducted a bench trial on this issue and heard from several expert witnesses. Ultimately, it determined that the State had acquired title in fee simple to the corridor through a highway layout and that the portion of the corridor abutting the Property is not a "public road" because the State has never "constructed" on it. Thus, the court ruled that DRED did not violate RSA 216-F:2, II. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the petitioner contends that the trial court erred when it determined that the State owns the corridor in fee simple and when it found that the corridor is not a public road. Because the petitioner failed to submit a transcript, we assume that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court's conclusion and review for legal error only. See Buatti v. Prentice, 162 N.H. 228, 229 (2011).

We find consideration of whether the State acquired fee simple ownership and whether the corridor constitutes a public road unnecessary. Even if we assume, without deciding, that the trial court erred in both respects, we, nonetheless, affirm the trial court's decision because the State has statutory authority to limit the public's use of the corridor. See RSA ch. 216-F; see also Catalano v. Town of Windham, 133 N.H. 504, 508 (1990) ("[W]hen a trial court reaches the correct result, but on mistaken grounds, [we] will sustain the decision if there are valid alternative grounds to support it." (quotation omitted)).

We are the final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed in the words of a statute considered as a whole. Estate of Gordon-Couture v. Brown, 152 N.H. 265, 266 (2005). We first examine the language of the statute, and, where possible, we ascribe the plain and ordinary meaning to the words used. Id. Our goal is to apply statutes in light of the legislature's intent in enacting them, and in light of the policy sought to be advanced by the entire statutory scheme. Id.

Furthermore, statutes in derogation of the common law are to be interpreted strictly. Id. While a statute may abolish a common law right, there is a presumption that the legislature has no such purpose. Id. If a common law right is to be taken away, it must be expressed clearly by the legislature. Id.

In relevant part, RSA 216-F:2 provides:

I. The trails within the system shall be held, developed and administered under this chapter primarily as recreational trails for hiking, nature walks, bird watching, horseback riding, bicycling, ski touring, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, mushing, and off highway recreational vehicles and the ...


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