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Town of Ellettsville v. DeSpirito

Supreme Court of Indiana

November 29, 2018

Town of Ellettsville, Indiana Plan Commission and Richland Convenience Store Partners, LLC, Appellants,
Joseph V. DeSpirito, Appellee.

          Argued: November 30, 2017

          Appeal from the Monroe Circuit Court No. 53C01-1509-PL-1714 The Honorable E. Michael Hoff, Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 53A01-1611-PL-2559

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS TOWN OF ELLETTSVILLE PLAN COMMISSION Darla S. Brown Sturgeon & Brown, P.C. Bloomington, Indiana.

          RICHLAND CONVENIENCE STORE PARTNERS, LLC Andrew P. Sheff Sheff Law Office Indianapolis, Indiana Carina M. de la Torre The de la Torre Law Office LLC Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Michael Rabinowitch Maureen E. Ward Wooden McLaughlin LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.



         We adhere to Indiana's longstanding common-law rule that relocating a fixed easement requires the consent of all affected estate-holders. And we reject the minority approach, reflected in the Third Restatement of Property (Servitudes), which permits the unilateral relocation of easements if a court finds the proposed relocation is "reasonable", consistent with the "normal" use and development of the servient estate, and does not adversely affect the dominant estate. Property rights in Indiana are not so flimsy that they may be modified or eliminated if their exercise impedes what is thought to be a more productive or worthwhile use of land. Under Indiana law, such rights may be abridged only with the bargained-for consent of the property owner or through the lawful exercise of eminent domain.

         Factual and Procedural History

         A. History of the Affected Properties

         At issue here are two adjoining lots in Ellettsville, Indiana, that were once a single parcel of land owned by Swifty Oil Company. In 1996, Swifty subdivided the parcel and recorded the subdivision by a plat filed with the Monroe County Plan Commission. The plat delineates a utility easement across Lot 1. Swifty conveyed Lot 2 by warranty deed to Martin Hukill, the predecessor in interest to appellee, Joseph V. DeSpirito.

         In 2011, DeSpirito obtained Lot 2 by a special limited warranty deed executed and recorded in the Monroe County Recorder's Office. This deed conveyed Lot 2 "as shown on the recorded plat thereof" and "[s]ubject to covenants, easements and restrictions, if any, appearing in the public records." DeSpirito's deed does not explicitly mention a utility easement running through Lot 1. But one of the public records to which it is subject-namely, the subdivision plat-does show the easement.

         In 2014, Swifty conveyed the other lot-Lot 1-to appellant Richland Convenience Store Partners, LLC, by a limited warranty deed executed and recorded in April 2014. Richland's title was explicitly subject to "encroachments, easements, rights of way, covenants, reservations, and restrictions in the chain of title to the Real Estate or otherwise existing thereon". Richland's deed made clear Lot 1 was subject to various covenants, conditions, restrictions and, relevant here, "Utility and Drainage easements and setback lines", along with any amendments disclosed on the subdivision's recorded plat.

         B. Town of Ellettsville Plan Commission Proceedings

         In 2015, Richland asked the Town of Ellettsville Plan Commission, also an appellant here, for permission to relocate the utility easement on Lot 1. Richland wanted to move the easement, along with the private sewer line running beneath it, fifteen to twenty feet south-all at Richland's own expense. Richland sought to relocate the easement to increase the buildable area of Lot 1. DeSpirito, who owned Lot 2, opposed the relocation and testified against it at the hearing.

         Despite DeSpirito's opposition, the Plan Commission approved Richland's request. It found that Richland's "application [met] all of the requirements as set forth by the Town of Ellettsville Zoning Ordinance"; and it granted the proposed amendment to the plat. The Commission specifically found that relocating the sewer line would cause only minimal disruption to DeSpirito, and that Richland had agreed to incur the cost of replacement. It also found that relocation would increase the buildable area on Lot 1 and represented "the best location to allow for future development of the site and maintain the functionality of the sewer line."

         C. Trial Court Proceedings

         DeSpirito petitioned for judicial review of the Commission's decision in the Monroe Circuit Court. He also sought a declaration that the Commission's ruling was null and void, along with injunctive relief preventing construction or other development on Lot 1 inconsistent with the utility easement's existing location as described in the plat. The parties agreed to the preliminary injunction. On summary judgment the trial court found that DeSpirito, as owner of Lot 2, had a fixed utility easement through Lot 1, the location of which was specified in the subdivision plat. Citing Indiana appellate caselaw, the court held that the easement's fixed location meant it "cannot be changed by either party without consent of the other." The court thus granted DeSpirito's motion for summary judgment and remanded to the Commission with instructions to dismiss Richland's petition unless DeSpirito agreed to it. The court also ordered the preliminary injunction to remain in effect.

         D. Court of Appeals Proceedings

         Richland and the Commission appealed the trial court's entry of a purported final judgment, though the entry did not resolve all claims as to all parties. Town of Ellettsville v. DeSpirito, 78 N.E.3d 666 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017). Ignoring any jurisdictional infirmity, the court of appeals agreed with the trial court that there were no disputed material facts. Id. at 668. But the court distinguished the caselaw the trial court had relied upon, finding it involved "an easement by necessity" and thus did not apply. Id. at 676-77. The court of appeals concluded that the "more modern" and "more equitable approach to easement relocation" is stated in Section 4.8 of the Third Restatement of Property (Servitudes). Id. at 677. This provision entitles the holder of the servient estate-Richland-to "make reasonable changes in the location or dimensions of an easement" at its own expense, but only if they do not "(a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the owner of the easement in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created." Restatement (Third) of Property: Servitudes § 4.8(3) (2000).

         In adopting the Restatement, the court of appeals cited an opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer, 809 N.E.2d 1053 (Mass. 2004). The Massachusetts court rejected the common-law approach because it "permits an easement holder to prevent any reasonable changes in the location of an easement" and thus renders "an access easement virtually a possessory interest rather than what it is, merely a right of way." Id. at 1058. Our court of appeals found that rationale convincing and predicted we would, too. "We find these observations persuasive and believe that our supreme court would also recognize the utility of adopting the Restatements approach to easement relocation." 78 N.E.3d at 679.

         E. Supreme Court Proceedings

         DeSpirito sought transfer, which we granted, thus vacating the court of appeals' opinion. After oral argument, we found appellate jurisdiction lacking because the trial court never issued a final judgment-one that "disposed of all claims as to all parties". Ind. Appellate Rule 2(H)(1). Town of Ellettsville v. DeSpirito, 87 N.E.3d 9, 11 (Ind. 2017). In the interest of judicial economy, we did not dismiss the case outright; rather, we stayed the appeal and remanded to the trial court to determine whether it could enter a final judgment. Id. at 11-12. In response to our opinion, the trial court expressly determined that there was no just reason for delay and expressly directed entry of judgment for DeSpirito on his claim for judicial review and against Richland and the Commission. This entry is sufficient to secure appellate jurisdiction.

         Standard of Review

         We review the entry of summary judgment de novo, and that is no less true when the trial court sits as a reviewing court on judicial review from an administrative ruling. Under our settled standard, summary judgment is proper if the designated evidence shows there is no genuine issue as to any fact material to a claim or issue, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ryan v. TCI Architects/Engineers/Contractors, Inc., 72 N.E.3d 908, 912-13 (Ind. 2017). Here, the parties agree there are no disputed issues of material fact. The only dispute is one of law, which we also review de novo: Should we adhere to Indiana's longstanding common-law rule, which requires all affected estate-holders to consent to the relocation of a fixed easement; or adopt the Restatement position, which does not always require such consent? We continue to follow the common-law rule as the law of Indiana and thus affirm the trial court.

         Discussion and Decision

         I. Lot 2's utility easement through Lot 1 is fixed.

         An easement is the right to use another's land for a specified purpose. An easement appurtenant benefits adjoining land; an easement in gross benefits a specific individual. The land benefited by an easement is the ...

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