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O'Keefe v. Hoa

Supreme Court of Montana

August 6, 2019

AUDREY O'KEEFE and TIM BEARDSLEY, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
MUSTANG RANCHES HOA, DUSTIN BROWN, ROY HILL, and JOE VELAND, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: March 6, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, In and For the County of Madison, Cause No. DV 29-2015-18 Honorable Luke Berger, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants: Brian K. Gallik, Gallik, Bremer & Molloy, P.C., Bozeman, Montana

          For Appellees: Wayne Jennings, Jennings Law Office, P.C., Bozeman, Montana

          OPINION

          DIRK M. SANDEFUR JUSTICE

         ¶1 Plaintiffs Audrey O'Keefe and Tim Beardsley appeal the judgment of the Montana Fifth Judicial District Court, Madison County, granting Defendants Mustang Ranches Association, et al., summary judgment that the pertinent deeds of conveyance and referenced subdivision plat established a 60' wide roadway easement straddling the boundary of Plaintiffs' adjoining lots to the benefit of the other platted subdivision lots for ingress and egress to and from the subdivision and adjoining off-plat land. Plaintiffs also appeal the court's subsequent grant of summary judgment denying their damages claims in trespass and for property damage resulting from a self-help removal and destruction of the gate(s) placed across the roadway by Plaintiffs to limit access to the adjoining land to themselves and their guests. We affirm.

         ¶2 We address the following restated issues on appeal:

1. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that Elk Valley Road burdened Lots 70 and 71 to the benefit of other subdivision lot owners for ingress and egress to and from the adjoining off-plat land?
2. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that Plaintiffs had no right to obstruct Elk Valley Road and thus no right to compensatory damages in trespass and for removal of the obstruction?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 Mustang Ranches Subdivision (Mustang Ranches) is a rural residential subdivision in Section 29, Township 6, Range 1 East, Madison County, Montana. The former ranch property includes 86 twenty-acre lots with platted roadways and common areas. Shining Mountains North, a limited partnership, was the subdivider and most recent common owner of the property. Shining Mountains North subdivided the property in 1973 by filing an unreviewed subdivision plat prior to the effective date of the 1973 Montana Subdivision and Platting Act (Title 76, chapter 3, MCA).[1] The Lee Metcalf Wilderness (hereinafter "USFS land"[2]) borders on the eastern perimeter of the subdivision along the eastern boundaries of Lots 41-45, 54, 55, 70, 71, and 86. The Mustang Ranches plat does not identify, describe, or depict the adjoining USFS land.

         ¶4 Upon filing of the subdivision plat, Shining Mountains North filed a separate written declaration of protective covenants reciprocally burdening and benefitting the subdivision lands. In pertinent part, the covenants limited use of subdivision lands to "residential purposes only" and charged the Mustang Ranches Association (Association), a Montana non-profit corporation, with oversight and maintenance "of all common areas," including "grading and maintenance of the major traverse roads," and maintenance of "the existing ranch fencing around the perimeter of the property. . . ."[3] Pursuant to the covenants and unrecorded Association bylaws, the Association membership includes all record owners of subdivision lots who are current on their membership dues. Though the non-record rules and regulations of the Association reference the adjoining USFS land, the recorded Mustang Ranches covenants do not.

         ¶5 The Mustang Ranches plat clearly depicts and labels a connected network of 60' wide roadways within the subdivision. Every subdivision lot borders on at least one of the platted roadways. The platted roadway network thus provides multiple points of ingress and egress to and from the subdivision and adjoining exterior lands at various points around the perimeter of the subdivision. Subdivision lots currently access the public road system by direct or indirect connection to a county road from the west terminus of the platted Airport Road running along the southern boundary of the subdivision to its southwest corner (southwest corner of Lot 8).

         ¶6 Four of the platted interior roadways (McDeed Creek Road, Elk Valley Road, Shell Creek Road, and Cedar Mountain Road) run east to west with eastern termini on the eastern boundary of the subdivision and adjoining USFS land. The mid-line of the Elk Valley Road runs along the southern boundaries of Lots 71-78 and the adjoining northern boundaries of Lots 63-70. The road thus runs over a 30' strip of land within each of those lots.[4] Any ingress or egress to or from the subdivision and adjoining USFS land via Elk Valley Road must necessarily pass over one or both of the 30' wide strips within and along the adjoining boundary between Lots 70 and 71. See Figures 1-2. Like other interior subdivision roadways, Elk Valley Road currently remains unimproved-essentially two wheel tracks across a barren field.

         (Image Omitted)

         ¶7 By 1985 warranty deed (recorded 1987), Shining Mountains North conveyed Lot 71 to Bob and Audrey Chamberlin by reference to the previously filed Mustang Ranches plat but "[s]ubject to easements and restrictive covenants and reservations of record. . . ." In 2012, Plaintiff Audrey O'Keefe (formerly Audrey Chamberlin), acquired sole title to Lot 71 from Bob Chamberlin via a recorded quitclaim deed that conveyed the lot by reference to the Mustang Ranches plat "together with all tenements" and "appurtenances."

         ¶8 By 1982 warranty deed (recorded 1992), Shining Mountains North conveyed Lot 70 to Ronald Lerch by reference to the previously filed Mustang Ranches plat but "[s]ubject to easements and restrictive covenants and reservations of record. . . ." Following mesne conveyances by recorded deeds from Lerch to Lennis and Connie Williams (1992) and then from Connie to Lennis (1999), Plaintiff Tim Beardsley acquired Lot 70 in 2002 by recorded warranty deed from Lennis Williams. The 1992, 1999, and 2002 deeds all conveyed Lot 70 by reference to the previously filed Mustang Ranches plat.

         ¶9 Beardsley and his guests have used Lot 70, via Elk Valley Road, for seasonal access to and from the adjoining USFS land for recreational purposes, primarily elk hunting. There is no record evidence of any other use of Lot 70 or 71 by the current or prior owners of those lots. Like Elk Valley Road, Lots 70 and 71 remain unimproved lots platted over a barren field.

         ¶10 For some time after the 1973 subdivision of the former ranch land, a preexisting stock fence continued to exist along the eastern perimeter of the subdivision and adjoining USFS land. There is no evidence that the stock fence had any purpose other than to control ranging ranch stock. The record indicates that the stock fence was gone, down, or otherwise open at the east end of the Elk Valley roadway before the dispute arose in this case.

         ¶11 Sometime prior to 2015, Beardsley became aggrieved with other Mustang Ranches landowners "trespassing" over his land on the platted Elk Valley Road to access the adjoining USFS land for elk hunting or other seasonal recreational purposes. According to Beardsley, the perceived trespassers would occasionally drive down and park their vehicles on Elk Valley Road either as a vantage point for spotting elk coming down from the mountains on the adjoining USFS land or as a point of entry thereto. With O'Keefe's "knowledge and consent," Beardsley placed a cable gate (a cable hung between two wooden posts) across the platted Elk Valley Road where it crosses the western boundaries of Lots 70 and 71, along with approximately 100 feet of fencing running north and south from each end of the gate along the western boundary of each lot, thereby blocking access on the road over those lots from the interior of the subdivision to and from the eastern terminus of the road and adjacent USFS land. The gate remained undisturbed and unchallenged for several years until taken down by persons unknown. Within months, Beardsley installed another gate to again similarly block access over the eastern end of Elk Valley Road.

         ¶12 Another onsite incident occurred at some point in 2013 or 2014 when a Mustang Ranches lot owner, who was also an Association officer, passed through the gate when left open by one of Beardsley's friends who had left his vehicle unattended on the road. While Beardsley's friend was away on the adjoining USFS land, the Mustang Ranches landowner immobilized the unoccupied truck by removing one of its wheels and then left. Following a criminal prosecution of the landowner, the roadway dispute later flared up again when two Mustang Ranches lot owners, who were also Association officers, took a backhoe down the east end of Elk Valley Road and dug up Beardsley's cable gate posts, leaving the posts and cable on the ground.

         ¶13 On April 20, 2015, Beardsley and O'Keefe responded by filing a complaint in the Montana Fifth Judicial District Court for declaratory and injunctive relief. The plaintiffs asserted that the east end of Elk Valley Road, from the western boundary lines of Lots 70 and 71 to the east terminus of the road on the eastern boundary of the subdivision, benefitted only those lots to the exclusion of the other Mustang Ranches lots. Plaintiffs further sought compensatory and punitive damages based on trespass and asserted property damage to Beardsley's cable gate and fencing. In 2017, following hearing on the parties' cross motions, the District Court granted the Association, et al., summary judgment that the Mustang Ranches Plat and pertinent conveyances of subdivision lots by the common owner created a roadway easement over the disputed segment of Elk Valley Road to the benefit of the other Mustang Ranches lots for ingress and egress to and from the adjoining off-plat land. In 2018, the Court further granted summary judgment to the Association, et al., on Plaintiffs' damages claims based on its earlier ruling and resulting conclusion that Plaintiffs thus had no right to compensation for property damage to a wrongfully placed gate removed from the road easement way by easement holders. Upon entry of final judgment encompassing the District Court's summary judgment rulings, Plaintiffs timely appealed.

         STANDARD ...


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