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Inc. v. Caltabiano

Supreme Court of Montana

September 24, 2019

WHITEFISH CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, INC., Plaintiff, Appellee, and Cross Appellant,
v.
GIUSEPPE CALTABIANO and JAMIE CALTABIANO, Defendants and Appellants.

          Submitted on Briefs: July 10, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, In and For the County of Flathead, Cause No. DV-17-1091B Honorable Robert B Allison, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Sean S. Frampton, Frampton Purdy Law Firm, Whitefish, Montana

          For Appellee: Kimberly S. More, Crowley Fleck PLLP, Kalispell, Montana

          OPINION

          James Jeremiah Shea Justice

         ¶1 Appellants Giuseppe Caltabiano and Jamie Caltabiano (collectively "Caltabianos"), appeal the judgment of the Eleventh Judicial District, Flathead County, concluding that the Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. (Congregation) has a valid, enforceable easement across the Caltabianos' property, and granting the Congregation's permanent injunction prohibiting the Caltabianos from interfering with the Congregation's use of the easement. The Congregation cross-appeals the District Court's decision not to award attorney fees. We address the following issues on appeal:

Issue One: Whether the District Court erred by finding an easement in favor of the Congregation.
Issue Two: Whether the District Court erred when it entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the Caltabianos from interfering with the Congregation's access, via the easement, to its property from Lion Mountain Road.
Issue Three: Whether the Congregation is entitled to attorney fees.

         ¶2 We affirm.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 The Congregation is a Montana nonprofit religious corporation located in Whitefish, Montana. On August 4, 1994, the Congregation purchased an undivided property along Highway 93 West by warranty deed. At the time, the property was vacant and served by two access points: one along Highway 93 to the south, and the other along Lion Mountain Road (LMR) to the north.

         ¶4 Also in 1994, the Congregation applied for a conditional use permit from Flathead County Regional Development Office (FRDO) to build a church. The Flathead County Board of Adjustment considered the Congregation's application and issued permit FCU-94-9, subject to ten conditions. Relevant to this case, Condition No. 2 provided that: "the proposed access from [LMR] be approved by the Flathead County Road Department by obtaining an approach permit."

         ¶5 In 1995, the Congregation applied to FRDO for a preliminary plat approval of a two-lot subdivision. The Congregation proposed that the property be divided into two adjacent flag lots with separate access to what would be called "Tracts A and B."[1] The Congregation planned to build a church on Tract A, and access to Tract B would be from LMR.

         ¶6 FRDO staff recommended that the Congregation delete the flag-mast portion of Tract A fronting LMR and establish a road and utility easement in its place to provide a second point of access from Tract A to LMR. On May 15, 1995, the Whitefish City Council approved the two-lot subdivision preliminary plat, subject to the FRDO recommendations. Congregation members constructed a gravel road between Tract A and LMR and erected a gate on the Congregation's property that controlled through-access to LMR via Highway 93. At this point, the preliminary plat was not signed, and the application process terminated.

         ¶7 In 1996, the Congregation built a church on Tract A. Tract B remained vacant. From 1996-1999, Congregation members utilized both the LMR and Highway 93 access points for ingress and egress to the church. In 1999, the Congregation resubmitted an application for a two-lot subdivision. The resubmission triggered another review of the 1995 application. On May 26, 1999, the FRDO Site Review Committee met and discussed the proposal and recommended that (1) the Access and Utility Easement (Easement) be at least sixty feet in width; (2) the final plat reflect the Easement; and (3) access to Tract B be off the Easement and not another access off LMR.

         ¶8 On July 6, 1999, the Whitefish City Council approved the Congregation's preliminary plat, subject to nine conditions of approval. Relevant to this case, Condition No. 3 provided:

The flag-mast portion of Tract A fronting on Lion Mountain Road shall be deleted, and a road and utility easement of 40 feet minimum width across Tract B shall be established in its place. This road and utility easement shall be used by both Tract A and B jointly and there shall be a shared access point onto Lion Mountain Road. This easement then will provide an access from Tract A to Lion Mountain Road in addition to the access point on Highway 93.

(Emphasis added.)

         ¶9 By letter dated August 3, 1999, the FRDO director reviewed the Congregation's proposed final subdivision plat and determined that it met all nine conditions imposed by the Whitefish City Council. The FRDO director noted that the proposed final subdivision plat-to become Subdivision Plat No. 149-clearly depicted the sixty-foot Easement on its face. The FRDO director also noted that sixty feet is the standard width for a city street in Whitefish and that an easement intended only for utility use would typically be ten to twenty feet wide. Finally, the FRDO director noted that the diagram on the plat identified the location of the Easement and that it was for access. On August 16, 1999, the Whitefish City Council granted final approval for the subdivision. Two days later, Plat No. 149 was recorded and is depicted as follows:

         (Image Omitted)

         ¶10 Plat No. 149 depicts the sixty-foot Easement that crosses Tract B (identified on Plat No. 149 as “Lot 2”). The Easement provided a metes-and-bounds description of the Easement ...


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