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Estate of Smith v. Spinelli

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 18, 2009

The ESTATE OF Selma SMITH, William P. Ingrim, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Selma Smith, Wallace A. Smith, Wesley C. Monson, Thelma Ingrim Walston, and Elizabeth Jenkins, Appellants,
Charles SPINELLI, Clark Rush, Lorane Owsichek-Cupples, David Schmid, Victoria Blower, David White, Matthew Fink, Patricia Lefevre, and Corbett Mothe, Appellees.

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Calvin R. Jones, Jones & Colver, LLC, Anchorage, for Appellants.

Richard W. Maki, David H. Shoup, Tindall Bennett & Shoup, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellees Spinelli, Rush, Owsichek-Cupples, Schmid, Blower, White, and Mothe.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, WINFREE, and CHRISTEN, Justices.


FABE, Chief Justice.


This dispute centers around a 3.38-acre parcel of coastal land in the Turnagain area of Anchorage. Prior to the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, this parcel consisted of a steep, eroding bluff and tidal mudflats. The powerful earthquake collapsed the bluff, spreading it out over the mudflats and transforming the once unusable parcel into gently sloping, potentially developable coastal property. Uncertainty regarding this parcel's ownership arose forty years later when the Municipality

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of Anchorage sought to construct sewage facilities on it.

The appellants are heirs of the children of Rasmus Simonson, whose 147-acre 1920s homestead encompassed the disputed parcel, and heirs of his daughter Selma Smith, who subdivided and sold the homestead in the 1940s and 50s (collectively, " the Simonson heirs" ). The Simonson heirs contend that Smith's subdivision plat shows that she did not sell the bluff and mudflats when she subdivided the Simonson homestead and that they thus retain title to the developable land now located where the bluff and mudflats once stood. The appellees are the current owners of eight lots in the Simonson subdivision that directly abut the disputed parcel (collectively, " the lot owners" ). The lot owners argue that Smith did not intend to retain the bluff and mudflats when she subdivided the Simonson homestead and that the superior court correctly awarded them the disputed parcel. They also contend that the superior court's decision can be affirmed based on the " strip and gore" doctrine, which creates a presumption against a grantor's retention of small, useless strips of land, and on Alaska's Earthslide Relief Act, which provides procedures for determining property boundaries following an earthslide.

Because the subdivision plat is ambiguous and because the superior court did not clearly err in concluding that the evidence surrounding Smith's sale of the Simonson homestead shows that she did not intend to retain the disputed parcel, we affirm the superior court's decision to award the disputed parcel to the lot owners. We do not reach the questions whether the strip and gore doctrine and the Earthslide Relief Act are applicable to this case.


A. Facts

In 1927 homesteader Rasmus Simonson obtained 147 acres of coastal land from the federal government in what is now the Turnagain area of Anchorage. The northern (seaward) boundary of the Simonson homestead was the pre-earthquake mean high tide line of Knik Arm, as established by a 1916 General Land Office (GLO) survey. Following the deaths of Simonson and his wife, the Simonson homestead passed to six of their children, including Selma Smith. In 1946 Smith's siblings deeded the entire property in trust to Smith, empowering her to plat, subdivide, and sell it, with the proceeds to be split equally among the children.

Smith proceeded to plat and subdivide the Simonson homestead, recording several different plats, the last of which was Plat P-48B, recorded in 1949. Smith sold the eight northernmost (seawardmost) lots in the subdivision, depicted as Lots 1-8 in Block C of Plat P-48B, between 1949 and 1952. These eight lots, which have since changed hands many times, are now owned by the appellees and are currently vacant. The appellees and their predecessors in interest purchased these lots with the understanding that they were buying oceanfront property. The appellees' deeds describe their lots with reference to Plat P-48B.

Plat P-48B depicts the northern boundary of the appellees' eight lots with a solid line drawn at what Before the 1964 earthquake was the upper edge of a steep, eroding 50-70 foot bluff with tidal mudflats below. That is, in Plat P-48B, the northern boundary of the Simonson subdivision was drawn not at the northern boundary of the Simonson homestead (the 1916 GLO survey mean high tide line), but rather closer inland, along the upper edge of the bluff. Plat P-48B thus left unplatted and undemarcated the largely unusable parcel of bluff and mudflats that was located between the subdivision boundary and the mean high tide line. Evidence at trial showed that a plat containing such a deficiency could not be recorded under modern standards.

Fifteen years after Plat P-48B was prepared, the violent 1964 Alaska Earthquake triggered soil liquefaction that caused the bluff to collapse and spread out onto the mudflats, destroying the houses that had been located on appellees' eight lots, pushing the mean high tide line seaward, and changing the previously unusable, unplatted parcel

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into gently sloping, potentially developable [1] land.

The ownership of the unplatted parcel went unexamined for some forty years following the earthquake. Neither the Simonson heirs nor the owners of the eight abutting lots paid property taxes on the parcel or attempted to build on it or sell it. No Simonson heir took any action to suggest that they owned the parcel, and several later testified that they never had reason to believe they had any interest in the parcel until the present controversy arose. Smith died in 1984. There was no evidence that she ever conveyed the parcel back to her siblings for whom she had held the Simonson homestead in trust, and the parcel was not included in her estate. The parcel remained undeveloped except insofar as the Municipality of Anchorage's Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was built across a portion of it in the 1980s.

Many decades after the earthquake, while preparing for the possible construction of sewage facilities in the area, the Municipality of Anchorage discovered that the parcel's ownership was uncertain. In 2005 a title company identified the parcel's owner as " Selma Smith, Trustee." Smith having died, the Municipality sent a tax bill for the parcel to Smith's son William Ingrim, who paid it. The Municipality returned ...

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