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Stowell v. Andrews

Supreme Court of New Hampshire, Merrimack

September 14, 2018

DWIGHT K. STOWELL, JR.
v.
JEFFREY ANDREWS & a.

          Argued: February 7, 2018

          Cook, Little, Rosenblatt & Manson, pllc, of Manchester (Kathleen M. Mahan on the brief), and Sullivan & Worcester LLP, of Boston, Massachusetts (Nicholas M. O'Donnell on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

          Schuster, Buttrey & Wing, P.A., of Lebanon (Barry C. Schuster on the brief and orally), for the defendants.

          BASSETT, J.

         This is an appeal and cross-appeal of rulings made by the Superior Court (McNamara, J.) regarding the claims of the defendants, direct or beneficial owners of real property on Great Island, to deeded or prescriptive easements to traverse a footpath (the Circle Trail) over the Great Island lot owned by the plaintiff, Dwight K. Stowell, Jr. Great Island is on Lake Sunapee and lies partially in Newbury and partially in Sunapee. Stowell's lot is primarily in Newbury, although a small portion of it is in Sunapee. Some of the defendants have Great Island lots in Newbury (the Newbury defendants), while others have Great Island lots in Sunapee (the Sunapee defendants). Because Great Island has no public roads, footpaths are used to get from one place to another on the island. The Circle Trail goes around the perimeter of the island.

         In ruling on pre-trial cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court decided that the Newbury defendants have deeded easements to use the Circle Trail as it crosses the Newbury portion of Stowell's lot. The court rejected the assertion that those easements were extinguished because the purpose for which they were created - to provide access to steamboats - became impossible to achieve once the steamboat wharves were destroyed in the hurricane of 1938. Stowell challenges that ruling in his cross-appeal. We affirm the trial court's determination.

         Following a bench trial that included a view, the trial court ruled that: (1) only those Newbury defendants who testified at trial have prescriptive easements to use the Circle Trail over the Sunapee portion of Stowell's lot; (2) only the single Sunapee defendant who testified at trial has a prescriptive easement to use the Circle Trail over both the Newbury and Sunapee portions of Stowell's lot; and (3) Stowell has the unilateral right to relocate the Newbury defendants' deeded easements from the front to the back of his property. The defendants challenge those rulings in their appeal. We vacate the trial court's rulings regarding the defendants' prescriptive easements and Stowell's right to relocate the deeded easements, and we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Stowell's Cross-Appeal of the Trial Court's Summary Judgment Ruling

         We first address Stowell's challenge to the trial court's summary judgment ruling that the deeded easements of the Newbury defendants were not extinguished when the steamboat wharves were destroyed. In reviewing the trial court's rulings on cross-motions for summary judgment, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to each party in its capacity as the nonmoving party and, if no genuine issue of material fact exists, we determine whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Granite State Mgmt. & Res. v. City of Concord, 165 N.H. 277, 282 (2013). If our review of that evidence discloses no genuine issue of material fact and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, then we will affirm the grant of summary judgment. Id. We review the trial court's application of the law to the facts de novo. Cloutier v. State, 163 N.H. 445, 451 (2012).

         A. Relevant Facts

         The trial court recited the following facts in its summary judgment order. In 1890, the original grantors owned the portion of Great Island located in Newbury. According to the 1890 "Plan of Cottage Lots on Great Island in Lake Sunapee, N.H.," the original grantors subdivided the Newbury portion of the island into 45 lots. (Quotation omitted.) The plan did not identify any footpaths or wharves.

         In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people used steamboats to travel to and from Great Island. Beginning in October 1892, the original grantors conveyed lots along the Newbury shore to various individuals through deeds. The first such deed, conveying Lot 16, contained the following easement clause:

Hereby conveying to said grantee and his assigns the right of a foot path across any of the lots numbered on the before mentioned "plan" to reach the wharf or wharves that may be established on the shore of said Island, and reserving to ourselves and assigns the right of a similar foot path through or over the within named lot No. 16.

         The first steamboat wharf on the Newbury side of the island, known as Auburn Landing, was built sometime after March 1893. The second steamboat wharf on that side of the island, known as Melrose Landing, was built sometime after October 1902.

         Between 1893 and 1902, the original grantors conveyed 11 additional shoreline lots; after the Auburn and Melrose Landings were built, the grantors conveyed the remaining shoreline lots. Most of the deeds thus conveyed contained an easement clause. Although those clauses differ slightly, their substance is substantially the same: they convey to the grantee the right to cross all or some of the lots shown on the plan, by footpath, to reach the steamboat wharves. The lots to be crossed are variously referred to as the "lots in this range," "any of the lots," "the other lots," "all the lots north or south of this lot," "all the lots," "all the adjoining lots," and "all the lots on either side of these lots." (Quotations omitted.)

         Steamboat service on Lake Sunapee ended by the 1930s, and the 1938 hurricane destroyed the steamboat wharves. The wharves were never rebuilt. After the wharves were destroyed and before electricity came to the island in the mid-1900s, staples such as bread, milk, and ice were delivered to island residents via boat; the delivery person would use the island's footpaths. The properties on Great Island now have individual docks for boats, which are used to travel to and from the island. The footpaths have been used to: travel to island gatherings; attend island meetings; visit neighbors; conduct island business; and access cottages in the case of an emergency. They also have been used for exercise and/or pleasure.

         Before trial, motions were filed disputing whether the deeded easements remained viable after the steamboat wharves were destroyed. The trial court, relying upon the plain language of the deeds and agreeing with the defendants, ruled that the destruction of the wharves did not extinguish the easements.

         B. ...


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