Tuesday, January 25, 2011

If it looks like a Duck . . . .

Mahoney v. Tara, LLC, 2011 VT 3 (mem.).

Then you’d better make sure it walks and quacks like one too. Land-use bar take note: just because a property owner has a pious- or charitable-sounding name doesn’t necessarily mean that the property is being put to a charitable or pious use. That’s the thrust of this adverse-possession appeal.

The Mahoney family has been vacationing at a property on Lake Champlain for, oh, the past 60 years or so. For the last 35, they’ve owned the property. By the terms of their lease and deed, the Mahoneys enjoyed the use of about 75 feet of lake frontage. From 1958 to 2006, Vermont Catholic Charities (VCC) owned the adjacent lot and recognized the boundary line as being where the Mahoneys said it was. VCC marked the boundary with signs. Then, in 2006, VCC sold its lot to defendant, Tara, LLC. In 2007, Tara filed an application to subdivide, and in its application, included a survey that cut the Mahoneys’ beach in half. Then all hell broke loose.

The Mahoneys filed suit to quiet title on four bases, claiming ownership by: (1) deed, (2) adverse possession, (3) acquiescence, and (4) equitable estoppel. They also requested an injunction to stop the subdivision. They named Vermont Catholic Charities as the prior owner, but didn’t describe VCC’s use of the property during its ownership.       

“Gotcha!” said Tara. Tara moved to dismiss on the last three bases because its predecessor in interest was VCC and 12 V.S.A. § 462 exempts from adverse possession lands dedicated to a “public, pious, or charitable use.” Thus, Tara argued, the Mahoneys could not satisfy the fifteen-year limitations period applicable to an adverse possession claim. The Mahoneys opposed the motion, pointing out the importance of developing the record and arguing that Tara didn’t necessarily have standing to assert the charitable exemption.

The trial court granted Tara’s motion, brushing aside the standing argument, finding that any possession period was tolled by virtue of charitable ownership, and tossing the adverse possession and acquiescence claims on that ground.

The Mahoneys appealed on the adverse possession and acquiescence.   After all, the trial court dead-ended their adverse possession claim without any discovery or evidence as to whether VCC even qualified for the Section 462 exemption.

SCOV dismissed the Mahoneys’ first claim—that they weren’t given a chance to develop their “we-adversely-possessed-the-property-before-VCC-bought-it” claim—with little fanfare. The Mahoneys only owned their property for nine years before VCC bought theirs.  Nine is not fifteen.

The Mahoneys fared better in Round Two.  Without a factual record the trial court had no basis to determine whether the property was put to a charitable use. According to SCOV,  the relevant inquiry turns on the use of the property and not the status of the property owner. SCOV returned to sender with instructions to develop a factual record.    

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