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Cottonwood Duplexes, LLC v. Seth Barlow

November 13, 2012

COTTONWOOD DUPLEXES, LLC, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
SETH BARLOW, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



(Super. Ct. No. 170118) APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Shasta County, Bradley L. Boeckman, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie , Acting P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION*fn1

Reversed.

In this quiet title action, the trial court narrowed and shortened a road and utility easement that a predecessor of plaintiff Cottonwood Duplexes, LLC (Cottonwood) had granted to defendant Seth Barlow because, in the court's view, "the reasonable use requirements of [Barlow's property] both presently and in the future do not require the full size and scope of the [original] easement."

On appeal, Barlow asserts that no "recognized rule of law . . . authorized [the trial court] to terminate [his] property rights" by reducing the size of his easement against his will, no matter what the evidence showed. We agree. Accordingly, we will reverse.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In August 1978, Ned Gatchett recorded a parcel map dividing certain property adjacent to Interstate 5 in Shasta County into four parcels. (A copy of the recorded parcel map No. 833-78 is attached as appendix A to this opinion.) Parcel No. 4 was adjacent to the south side of Rhonda Road. Parcels Nos. 1, 2, and 3 lay next to each other south of parcel No. 4, with the north side of each parcel adjacent to the south side of parcel No. 4. (Parcel No. 1 was the westernmost of the three parcels; parcel No. 3 was the easternmost, lying adjacent to Interstate 5; parcel No. 2 lay between the other two parcels.) As depicted on the map, access to parcels Nos. 2 and 3 could only be had by a private road and public utility easement which was to run across the northern 60 feet of parcels Nos. 1, 2, and 3.*fn2 The parcel map identified the easement as Gatchett Lane.

In September 1978, a week after the parcel map was recorded, Ned and his wife, Benita -- who were the owners of parcels Nos. 2, 3, and 4 -- and James and Nita Leak -- who were the owners of parcel No. 1 -- recorded a road maintenance agreement with respect to Gatchett Lane.*fn3 By means of this agreement, the Gatchetts and Leaks granted to each other the easement running across the northern 60 feet of parcels Nos. 1, 2, and 3, as depicted on the parcel map. Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, the easement was "for the benefit of and appurtenant to the" the parties' properties (including parcel No. 4) and "the burdens and benefits of th[e] agreement [was to] run to the grantees and vendees, or other successors in interest, of the parties."

In 1989, Ned Gatchett subdivided parcel No. 4 on map No. 833-78 into six parcels, numbered 1 through 6 from west to east. (A copy of the tentative tract map showing this subdivision is attached to this opinion as appendix B.) In 2002, Gatchett sold the easternmost parcel (parcel No. 6) to Barlow. Included in the grant deed to Barlow was "[a]n easement for road and utility purposes over the North 60 feet of Parcel 1, 2 and 3 as shown on Parcel Map No. 833-78 . . . ."

Sometime after 2002, Gatchett sold parcels Nos. 2 and 3 on map No. 833-78. Thereafter, Trion Development (Trion) proposed a 16-lot subdivision (Cottonwood Creek Meadow) for those parcels. (A copy of tract map 1912 showing this subdivision is attached to this opinion as appendix C.) Access to the Cottonwood Creek Meadow subdivision was to be provided by three new public roads. The first, Cremia Place, would run in a southerly direction parallel to Interstate 5. The second, Manzi Way, would run west from Cremia Place approximately 50 feet south of and parallel to the Gatchett Lane easement. The third, Silvario Court, would run south from Manzi Way to a cul-de-sac.

The first phase of the subdivision project involved 11 lots located south of Manzi Way. The second phase involved the remaining five lots located north of Manzi Way. Each of the lots in the second phase was 107 feet deep, but the Gatchett Lane easement covered the northern 60 feet of each lot. Accordingly, a note on the tract map stated as follows: "THERE SHALL BE NO BUILDING ON LOTS 1 THRU 5 OF PHASE 2 UNTIL GATCHETT LANE IS QUIT CLAIMED IN ITS ENTIRETY OR THE 60-FOOT GATCHETT LANE ROAD AND UTILITY EASEMENT IS REDUCED TO 15-FOOT (ALONG THE NORTHERLY PROPERTY LINE)."

Cottonwood was the lender that financed Trion's development of the subdivision. When Trion defaulted on its loan obligations, Cottonwood foreclosed and became the owner of the subdivision. When Cottonwood took over the project, Manzi Road and Silvario Court had been completed and accepted as public roads and seven of the 11 lots in phase one of the project had been built out.

One of Cottonwood's principals, Bob Meissner, investigated the use of Gatchett Lane and determined that "it came down to a single family residence," which was apparently the house on parcel No. 1 of map No. 833-78 previously owned by the Leaks. Because the owners of that property (the Greens) now had access to their property via Manzi Way, they no longer needed to use Gatchett Lane, which by now was a dirt road, and so Cottonwood negotiated a settlement with the Greens under which they gave up their right to the Gatchett Lane easement. Thereafter, most of the remaining adjacent property owners also agreed to abandon their rights to the Gatchett Lane easement.*fn4 The sole holdout was Barlow. Cottonwood offered Barlow as much as $30,000 to abandon his easement, but he refused.

Unable to obtain the easement by purchase, Cottonwood commenced this action against Barlow in August 2010 by filing a complaint for declaratory relief and to quiet title to get the court to give it the easement for nothing. Cottonwood sought a judicial determination that Barlow's easement "has been extinguished and/or is otherwise no longer legally recognizable as a result of the original intentions of the developer who created the Gatchett Lane easement, subsequent changes to the subdivision map and reasonable needs and historical uses by the parties. In the alternative, [Cottonwood sought] a judicial determination that the scope and width of the . . . Gatchett Lane easement has been significantly reduced and that [the] easement should be ...


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