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Labrenz v. Burnett

Supreme Court of Alaska

October 16, 2009

Jeffrey LABRENZ, Appellant,
v.
Shane BURNETT and Jill Burnett, Appellees.

Rehearing Denied Nov. 20, 2009.

Page 994

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 995

Robert A. Sparks, Law Office of Robert A. Sparks, Fairbanks, for Appellant.

William R. Satterberg, Jr., Law Offices of William R. Satterberg, Jr., Fairbanks, for Appellees.

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

OPINION

FABE, Chief Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

This appeal addresses a dispute between Jeffrey Labrenz and Shane and Jill Burnett over the use of land described in an easement. Labrenz has a driveway easement over the Burnetts' land, and in building his driveway, Labrenz installed decorative rocks, shrubs, trees, a fence, and a gate on the Burnetts' property. The superior court agreed with Labrenz that the slope of the Burnetts' land necessitated certain efforts to control erosion, but it found that many of Labrenz's improvements to the driveway easement were cosmetic in nature and ordered that they be removed. In addition, the superior court ordered Labrenz to move the fence and gate onto his own property. The superior court also permitted the Burnetts to use the easement to build a driveway to access the lower portion of their lot.

On appeal, Labrenz challenges the superior court's findings of fact as clearly erroneous and argues that his easement improvements were allowed under theories of contract and estoppel. He also contends that all of his improvements were reasonably necessary to protect his driveway from erosion and vandals. Because the evidence at trial supported the superior court's findings and the superior court's legal conclusions were not erroneous, we affirm the superior court's decision in all respects.

Page 996

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts

Jeffrey Labrenz and Shane and Jill Burnett own adjacent lots in the Sherwood Forrest Subdivision on Chena Ridge in Fairbanks. Lot 13A is owned by Labrenz, who also has an access easement over the lower portion of Lot 14A, owned by the Burnetts. Before the Burnetts owned Lot 14A, it was owned by Jeremy Riddle. The initial easement over Lot 14A was a thirty-foot-wide strip that was positioned during development of the subdivision by driving a bulldozer " along a path that was estimated, by eye, to be adequate for automobiles" to access Labrenz's property, Lot 13A.

Labrenz installed a driveway across Lot 14A to his property, and in the process, excavated outside of the driveway easement boundaries on Lot 14A. After it became apparent that Labrenz had over-excavated his easement, he and Riddle agreed on a replat of their adjoining lots, which was completed on May 4, 2004. Labrenz gave up a small portion of his lot in order to enlarge the easement area. In May 2004 Riddle sold Lot 14A to the Burnetts.

In addition to excavating his driveway easement in a manner that provided erosion controls, Labrenz landscaped it with light-colored rocks, shrubs, and spruce trees. Labrenz also placed a wire fence and gate on the easement, with a portion of the fence extending outside the easement on the Burnetts' property. The Burnetts objected to Labrenz's landscaping choices and the placement of the fence and gate on their property and requested that they be removed. Labrenz refused and replaced the wire fence with a white vinyl fence after he was sued by the Burnetts.

B. Proceedings

In June 2005 Shane Burnett filed suit against Labrenz, claiming that Labrenz had made use of the Burnetts' land in excess of Labrenz's rights under the easement. Specifically, Burnett alleged that Labrenz had trespassed on the Burnetts' property by making use of a wider strip of land than the easement allowed and " wasting the property." In August 2005 Burnett requested that the superior court issue an order requiring the removal of the improvements that Labrenz had made to the easement and enjoining Labrenz from making any further improvements. In late October 2005, the superior court denied Burnett's motion for a preliminary injunction requiring removal of the improvements. Jill Burnett was added as a plaintiff in December of that year. In March 2006 the superior court ruled that the Burnetts could only assert claims that had been available to Riddle, the former owner who originally granted the easement to Labrenz.

The case went to trial on October 26, 2006. Labrenz argued that all of the landscaping was necessary to protect his driveway from erosion. He also claimed that the fence and gate were necessary to protect his driveway from vandalism by snow-machiners and four-wheelers who might come on the property and destroy the driveway. The Burnetts argued that Labrenz had landscaped the easement area of Lot 14A to match Labrenz's own landscaping so that it would look like Labrenz's property and contended that the light-colored rocks and shrubs were decorative in nature. The Burnetts further maintained that to the extent the rocks and plants protected against erosion, other less obtrusive options such as " hardy grass" were available. Riddle testified that he had never approved Labrenz's rocks and shrubs and that he believed Labrenz's gate and fence were temporary. The surveyor of the replat testified that the purpose of the replat was to accommodate the improvements Labrenz had installed on the easement.

At the conclusion of the trial, the superior court made oral findings, determining that while " there has got to be some erosion control" to prevent against runoff, the light-colored rocks bordering the driveway were " more for the decorative beauty of the landscaping." Though the superior court acknowledged that the threat of erosion presented a " serious issue," it found that the threat of vandalism was not " a realistic problem" and ...


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