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MacDonald v. Coffin's Field Trust, Inc.

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Dukes

July 15, 2016

Donald MacDonald et al.
v.
Coffin's Field Trust, Inc. et al. [1] No. 134380

          FINDINGS, RULINGS AND ORDERS

          Robert J. Kane, Justice of the Superior Court.

         In 1979, Betsy and Donald MacDonald (" plaintiffs"), Michael Carroll and Marnie Edwards, along with Benjamin L. Hall, Sr. and Teresa Hall, through the Ancient Way Trust (collectively referred to as the " buyers"), purchased 40 acres of land for $30, 000. The land was originally part of the Watcha division layout established by the Martha's Vineyard Proprietors in 1743.[2] The Watcha division layout of 16 skinny, mile-long wood lots was bounded to the south by the Watcha Path, three rods in width, and to the north by the Mill Path, the main thoroughfare linking the eastern and western sections of Martha's Vineyard.

         Since their 1979 acquisition of one-third interests in the 40-acre property, buyers have endeavored through multiple approaches to acquire an easement to what is now the County Road, a 36-foot-wide paved roadway flanked by substantial shoulders.

         In 2007, the MacDonalds filed this action seeking an easement from their property to the County Road, a public road, which lies directly above the Mill Path, an unused ancient way. Plaintiffs claimed that the easement lies under the doctrine of " necessity" and under the doctrine of prescriptive use.

         Although nominally named as defendants, Carroll and Edwards, joined by the Halls, owners of abutting property referred to as " Starbucks, " support plaintiffs' claim to an easement over land owned by Coffin's Field Trust, Inc. (" CFT"). CFT objects to any easement over its land to the Mill Path or to the County Road. According to CFT, an easement by necessity running through their land would violate the original grantor's intent in conveying the land now owned by plaintiffs and CFT; would infringe upon property rights held by CFT in land that lacks any common origin with plaintiffs' land; and would unreasonably interfere with CFT's enjoyment of its land. As to any such easement under the doctrine of prescriptive use, CFT maintains that it lacks any foothold in the facts or in the law and may be safely characterized as a contrivance.

         I now take up concisely the procedural history of this eight years of litigation, followed by detailed findings of fact and rulings of law.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         It is now 2016. On October 30, 2007, Donald and Betsy MacDonald filed a Complaint against CFT, Benjamin L. and Teresa Hall and Michael Carroll, and Marnie Edwards. The Complaint sought as relief: (1) a Declaratory Judgment that plaintiffs and their co-owners of the 40-acre parcel of land possess an easement by necessity across the Coffin's Field lands " along and over the road, to and from the County Road"; (2) a Declaratory Judgment that " the road, to and from County Road" constitutes " a right of way"; (3) a Declaration that plaintiffs and their co-owners of the 40-acre parcel have acquired under G.L.c. 187, § 2 (easements by prescription), a right of way over the Coffin's Field lands allowing for travel by foot and vehicle along and over " the road to and from the County Road"; and (4) an injunction prohibiting CFT and its surrogates from erecting barricades and other obstructions blocking access to the easement possessed by plaintiffs and other interested parties.

         On March 19, 2008, CFT answered, counter-claimed and cross claimed. The counter-claims and cross claims consisted: (1) quiet title under G.L.c. 240, § § 6-10, by declaring that plaintiffs and others lack any right to use CFT's land; and declaring that any use of CFT's land by plaintiffs has been through " permission"; (2) abuse of process; and (3) a Declaratory Judgment that plaintiffs and Starbucks Trust lack any easement or other right to use CFT's lands.

         On May 6, 2009, Starbucks Trust filed cross claims and counterclaims. The claims generally paralleled plaintiff's claims.

         A. Progression of Suit

         Disputes about misjoinder of parties as defendants and production of documents caused exceptional delay.

         B. Pre-Trial Memoranda

         In a Pre-trial Memorandum, dated April 1, 2013, the MacDonalds, Carroll, and Edwards, and defendants CFT and Hall as trustee of the Starbucks Trust, set forth theories of their claims and defenses. Plaintiffs maintained that the easement by necessity ran from the land owned by the Ancient Way Trust over lands owned by CFT to the County Road. Alternatively, plaintiffs maintained that they possessed an easement over CFT's lands to the County Road, under the doctrine of a prescriptive easement. Starbucks, referencing the same legal theories, claimed an easement over the lands owned by the Ancient Way Trust and CFT to the County Road.

         CFT denied that plaintiffs possess any easement over its land. It agreed that plaintiffs and Starbucks had an easement over the Moltzes' land to Watcha Path.

         On August 8, 2013, Hall, as trustee of Starbucks, amended its Pre-trial Memorandum. In the amendment, Hall identified Attorney Christopher Pitt as an expert on the theory of an easement by necessity. According to the expert disclosure, Pitt would be expected to testify that at the time of the 1865 conveyances " reasonable access from Watcha Path for the Trust [did] not exist." The amendment further identified Douglas Dowling, a surveyor, as a witness and disclosed that Dowling would testify that access over Watcha Path failed to exist in 1865. He would also testify that presently Watcha Path fails to provide reasonable access, stemming from its " topography, wetlands and road conditions" and that curing the obstacles to reasonable access would be unreasonably burdensome due to cost and current municipal regulations. Dowling would identify reasonable access as being over CFT's lands to the County Road.

         TRIAL

         Over the course of fourteen sittings, the court listened to the testimony of fourteen witnesses, received one hundred and five exhibits, and attended a view. Before the trial ended, the court issued a procedural order governing requirements for proposed findings and rulings. The order stated that " each party must submit proposed rulings for all legal points or decisions that the party expects the court to address." The court expanded on the scope of this obligation, pointing out that the duty included " any motion in limine or evidentiary question that ha[d] been raised and preserved during the trial . . ." The order advised counsel that any substantial deviation from the order's requirements would constitute a waiver. The court has relied on the procedural order in preparing its findings of fact and rulings of law.

         FINDINGS OF PACT

         In 1743, the Martha's Vineyard Proprietors set off the Watcha Division, consisting of 16 skinny wood lots, approximately one-mile-long, running from the north on the Mill Path to the south on Watcha Path. The Mill Path went back to the earliest settlement of the island and perhaps before that time. Back then, it represented the main thoroughfare linking the western and eastern sections of the island. It constituted the shortest route between Edgartown and Tisbury.

         Eight and one-half feet in width, the Mill Path[3] was used by ox carts carrying cut wood to market. The amount of cart traffic caused depressions in the road. By the " 1850s" people were anticipating that the " state highway" above the Mill Path would attract the use of carriages.

         In 1854, officials had announced the layout of a new road above the Mill Path. On June 30, 1854, the Vineyard Gazette reported the following about the construction of a new road now known as the County Road:

Said road is to be thoroughly made and constructed in every part and to be cleared of all obstructions, the whole width from its Eastern terminus to the Guide Board leading to the Dukes County Land Records Office:--Thence the remainder of the road is to be cleared three rods in width.
Wherever the land is slanting transversely of said road, the lower side is to be raised with earth.
Wherever the ascent or descent is great, the hills are to be so far reduced as the safety or convenience of the public shall require.
The surface to be smooth, with suitable drains where necessary.
The traveling part of said road, or that part on which carriages pass, is to be not less than thirty feet in width, and raised eighteen inches higher in the centre than either side thereof, and hardened with clay or loam, wherever it may be necessary.

         As ultimately constructed, this paved roadway was 66 feet in width, with 30 of the 66 feet devoted to shoulders.

         A. Dexter Deeds

         On March 24, 1847 and October 15, 1851, William and Thomas Norton, by way of deeds, conveyed lots 4 through 9 of the Watcha Division to Hiram Dexter. The Mill Path constituted the northerly boundary of the Norton conveyances and Watcha Path represented the southern boundary of the conveyances. Only the Watcha Path was laid out as a public way.

         B. Description of Dexter Lands

         Watcha Division Lot 10 constituted the western boundary of the Dexter lands and Lot 3 constituted the eastern boundary. The Watcha lands owned by Dexter consisted of woodlands which were thickest in the area of Watcha Path to the south, thinning out to the north where the Mill Path was located. The Mill Path was about eight and one-half feet in width.

         In the 1980s, Douglas Dowling, a civil engineer and land surveyor, performed an original survey of the Watcha Division lands. Hollis Smith (" Smith") previously performed survey work of some of the Watcha Division lands. Smith is a fastidious surveyor. Besides working as a surveyor, Smith has a hobby of tracing the lines of the Vineyard's original divisions of land. He knew from his previous survey of the Watcha Division that rocks and piles had been used to mark off the boundaries.

         Once a brush fire expired, Smith would venture to the Mill Path. Using a pitchfork, he would attempt to locate piles of stone. By doing the excavation work, Smith was able to locate more stone piles on the Mill Path. He only found three to four stone piles as monuments on the Watcha Path.

         Dowling's survey work uncovered discrepancies between measurements used in the deeds to measurements found " on the ground." He also found that the deeds contained gaps in language.

         Smith and Dowling both knew that chains and links were used as the measuring mechanism back in the 1800s. This measuring mechanism was used to go over and under obstacles. Because of this method of measuring, there would be a 10 to 15% variance between what was actually the distance and what was recorded as the distance.

         The lot that posed the greatest difficulty for the surveyors was what came to be known as the Russell lot. They found that lot's measurements to be " very difficult." The distances made no sense. Smith believed that one entry of eight feet should have been 80 feet and determined that the lot ran along the Watcha Road, also known as the William Norton Road.

         To the south of the Watcha Path or Road was at one time the Walker Farm. Scrubby Neck Road which lies to the west of the Dexter lands represented a roadway constructed by Walker to access the Scrubby Neck Farm. Going further west on Watcha Path, it meets up with Waldron's Bottom Road. Going north on Waldron's Bottom Road leads to its intersection with the County Road. To the north of the Watcha lots, above the Mill Path, was an area known as the New Purchase Division.

         C. 1865 Conveyances

         The sequence of Dexter's five conveyances in February of 1865 has significance in determining the existence and location of an easement by necessity. The court now charts the timing of the conveyances[4] and generally identifies the location of the five lots with attention to each lot's relationship to Watcha Path and the Mill Path. Over the course of February 23, 1865 to February 27, 1865, Hiram Dexter conveyed five lots of land to four individuals. As a result of the conveyances, Dexter retained land to the north and to the east.

         On February 23, 1865, Dexter conveyed three lots of land, one to Josiah Vincent, one to William P. Bodfish and the third to James Russell. All three were conveyed under warranty deeds. The Bodfish lot (" Bodfish I") amounted to 40 acres and assumed a rectangular shape. It is the lot now owned by the Ancient Way Trust.

         The Bodfish I lot was bounded to the north by the Vincent lot. The Vincent lot was bounded to the north by land owned by Dexter that was subsequently conveyed on February 25 of 1865 to Bodfish (" Bodfish II"). The Bodfish I and Vincent lots lacked direct access to either the Mill Path or the Watcha Path. As will be seen, both the Bodfish I lot and the Vincent lot could access the Watcha Path by going east over the land retained by Dexter. The Vincent lot could have an easement north to the Mill Path. The Russell lot was the land at the southern border of Dexter's land. It was bounded to the east and south by Watcha Path.

         On February 27, 1865, Dexter conveyed a ten-acre parcel to John Pease. The Pease lot, now owned by Starbucks Trust, was bounded to the North by Bodfish I, to the south by the Russell Lot, and to the east by the Watcha Path and by land retained by Dexter. The land to the east that was retained by Dexter is land now owned by the Moltzes.

         Each of the deeds described the land as woodlands. The Bodfish I, Vincent and Russell lots all amounted to 40 acres; the Pease lot amounted to ten acres. The Bodfish II lot lacked any description of its acreage. At the end of the lot's description, it read:

Alexander Athearn's land joined on the west all the lots I have sold. They are to have their width in this division according to the deeds, if it takes all of the said land I have sold to James Russell, Henry Pease, William P. Bodfish and Josiah Vincent.

         None of the deeds provided for an easement. The five deeds lacked any retained or granted easement. After the five conveyances, Dexter retained land to the north of Bodfish II and land to the East. The retained land to the north, together with Bodfish I and the Vincent lots, eventually came to be the land now owned by CFT.

         D. Use of Conveyed Land

         In 1865, no homes were located on the conveyed land that consisted of woodlands. The court infers that the land was used for cutting wood and carrying it by cart to market.

         E. Use of Retained Land

         It is not known how, if at all, Hiram Dexter subsequently used the retained land. In 1923, municipal officials announced execution of a contract to construct a 66-foot wide paved road called the West Tisbury Road (" County Road") above the Mill Path.

         By the 1940s, the original Dexter Watcha Division lots had fields. Coming in from the Mayhew Memorial, one would go through an area of clearings and shrubbery and see a big opening which was probably Coffin's Fields. As previously mentioned, during the period of World War II, Joe Walker constructed a dirt road known as Walker Road that ran to Scrubby Neck Farms.

         Recently, the retained land to the North and other nearby lands in the northern section have had subdivisions approved and constructed. The use of the land in the North for the development of subdivisions has differed from the land to the south where no subdivisions have been constructed.

         F. Subsequent Purchase of Retained Land

         In 1979, Dexter's retained land to the North, along with property north of the Mill Path (" Cromwell property), was conveyed to Benjamin Boldt. In 1984, Boldt conveyed the land to CFT.

         G. Recent Condition of Watcha Path

         In the twentieth century, people, on occasion, used Watcha Path for vehicular excursions, walking, and hunting. In the 1960s, people walked on Watcha Path and on occasionally drove on it. During the period from 1976 to 1986, it was barely passable. Few used it.

         In the 1980s, Watcha Path was used as a walking path to get into the fields.

         Watcha Path back then was a lot worse than it is today. It had huge gullies and a hump that could rip a car. Now it is slightly better because of vehicular use and the presence of the subdivision road in CFT's land. Today, Watcha Path is still " really rough, except for some limited sections." The part of the Watcha Path that goes from Vineyard Meadows to Waldron's Road is " really rough." Going from Waldron's to Long Point Road is not bad. Going to the east towards Joe Walker Road is " really rough." Continuing towards the eastern boundary of the Watcha Division, one can barely make it, even when driving an ATV.

         H. Regulatory Requirements--Watcha Path

         There now exist regulations in West Tisbury and Edgartown declaring Watcha Path a Special Way.

         1. West Tisbury's Regulations

         Under West Tisbury's regulation, 6-2-4, there can be no alteration of width or surface material, and generally no removal of vegetation. Where the alteration for vehicular use exceeds twelve feet, approval by the Martha's Vineyard Commission is required.

         Use of land off of Watcha Path for a residential development is allowed but regulated. The permissible use for a residential development may not result in " ...


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