RALPH H. McBROOM AND GERALDINE E. McBROOM
JACKSON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/18/2012.
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JACKSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JAYE A. BRADLEY.
FOR APPELLANT: ROBERT E. O'DELL.
FOR APPELLEE: GARY S. EVANS, ANGELA BROUN BLACKWELL.
BEFORE DICKINSON, P.J., KITCHENS AND CHANDLER, JJ. WALLER, C.J., DICKINSON, P.J., CHANDLER, KING AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. LAMAR, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY RANDOLPH, P.J. PIERCE, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - REAL PROPERTY
¶1. In 1972, the Board of Supervisors of Jackson County, Mississippi, approved the final plat for Spring Lake Subdivision. At that time, the sole means of vehicular access to the subdivision was Spring Lake Drive East, which crossed Spring Lake Dam. The McBrooms, who own Spring Lake, three subdivision lots on Spring Lake, and the dam forming the lake and providing access to the subdivision, contend that Jackson County is obligated to maintain the dilapidating roadway by virtue of the McBrooms' dedication of the roadway to public use and Jackson County's acceptance of their dedication. The Chancery Court of Jackson County held that the McBrooms were entitled to no relief. Finding that the Spring Lake Dam and the roadway over it were dedicated to public use and accepted by Jackson County under the common law of this State, as evidenced by more than thirty years of continuous use by the public, we reverse and render judgment for the McBrooms.
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW
¶2. Ralph McBroom purchased two lots on the east side of Spring Lake in the Spring Lake Subdivision in 1972 and a third lot in 1989. He built a home on the lots in 1986 and moved in with his wife Geraldine in 1987. The residence is situated on the lake to the immediate left of Spring Lake Drive East, a paved roadway which crosses the entire length of the Spring Lake Dam traveling east. It was undisputed at trial that, for thirty-four years, from 1972 until an alternate means of access to the Spring Lake Subdivision was constructed by Jackson County in 2006, the roadway over Spring Lake Dam provided the only means of ingress and egress to and from the subdivision: " the garbage man, the mailman, everyone, UPS man. They all--well, matter of fact, he still comes over that thing. But no one had any problems with the road," as Ralph McBroom testified.
¶3. Nevertheless, at the time the subdivision was developed in 1972, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors approved the final subdivision plat for the Spring Lake Subdivision but added to it the following unilateral statement: " subject to the condition that the developer perpetually maintain the entrance route into said subdivision along the dam and subject to the express condition that Jackson County does not accept said entrance route over the dam for maintenance." In 1980, Lake-O-Pines, Inc., conveyed, by warranty deed, property including Spring Lake and Spring Lake Dam to Smith Homes, Inc. The warranty deed contained the following stipulation:
It is expressly understood and agreed that the Grantor herein has the responsibility of repairing the dam for Spring Lake and to have such repair completed by August 1, 1980. Upon acceptance of such repair work by the Board of Water Commissioners of the State of Mississippi, the grantee shall assume the responsibility of maintenance of said dam at Spring Lake.
Notably, this instrument is silent with respect to the paved roadway atop the dam. After multiple conveyances of the property since 1980, Merton Larson purchased Spring Lake, including Spring Lake Dam, in 2003 by quitclaim deed. In 2005, Larson conveyed the lake and dam to his company, Project Systems Investment Corporation.
¶4. In 2006, the Spring Lake Dam and roadway had deteriorated to such a degree that the local school buses, which historically had utilized the dam for ingress and egress to and from the Spring Lake Subdivision, were prohibited by the County School Board from crossing the dam. That year, the county opened an alternate access into the subdivision, namely Lee Taylor Road. On March 13, 2006, the McBrooms filed a complaint in the Chancery Court of Jackson County against Jackson County, Jackson County Planning Commission, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Merton Larson, and Project Systems Investment Corporation.
¶5. According to the McBrooms' complaint, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) had placed " Larson on notice that the dam is [a] 'high hazard dam' pursuant to the laws of the State of Mississippi and that the same must be either repaired, or breeched [sic], and the lake drained." The McBrooms alleged that " Jackson County, acting through its Board of Supervisors, now refuses to continue its traditional maintenance of the road across the dam based upon the belief that the road across the dam is a private road." The McBrooms sought an injunction against Jackson County to require the Jackson County
Board of Supervisors " to take immediate steps to restore the dam and to restore the road that traverses the top of the dam to a safe and reasonable condition for ingress and egress of the Plaintiffs and property owners in Spring Lake Village [Subdivision] . . ." or to require that Larson effect those repairs. The complaint further sought an injunction to prevent MDEQ and Larson from breaching the dam.
¶6. MDEQ filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the McBrooms had failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The Jackson County Planning Commission likewise filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting that, having " no separate legal existence apart from Jackson County," it was " not a legal entity capable of suing and being sued" and therefore not a proper party. In an order dated May 15, 2006, the chancellor granted the Jackson County Planning Commission's Motion to Dismiss and, because the McBrooms agreed to pursue administrative remedies, continued MDEQ's Motion to Dismiss. Those administrative remedies involved the McBrooms' obtaining a dam-breach analysis and a survey and field verification report. The results of those reports led to a reclassification by MDEQ of Spring Lake Dam " as a low-hazard dam." According to the letter the McBrooms received from MDEQ, " [o]wners of low-hazard dams are not required to develop and maintain an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) nor are they required to have their dam inspected by an engineer."
¶7. The chancellor then dismissed Merton Larson and Project Systems Investment Corporation with prejudice because a settlement had been achieved. The record reflects that on May 11, 2006, the McBrooms had purchased by quitclaim deed Spring Lake (and the accompanying dam and roadway) from Project Systems Investment Corporation.
¶8. Following further investigations and the filing of two amended complaints by the McBrooms, a trial was held in August 2012. The McBrooms' Second Amended Complaint, against Jackson County only, sought a declaratory judgment that the Spring Lake Dam and the roadway over it had been dedicated to public use and accepted by Jackson County and that the Jackson County Board of Supervisors' 1972 statement, in the final plat approval, that the developer maintain the dam, was an act ultra vires, which is to say, beyond its legal authority. The McBrooms sought, in the alternative, recognition that Jackson County either was responsible for maintaining the dam and roadway by virtue of a public easement or by adverse possession. Additionally, they sought compensatory damages and attorney fees. Both parties submitted Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. On September 18, 2012, the chancellor issued her " Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Ruling and Judgment of the Court" holding that the McBrooms were not entitled to any of the relief sought.
¶9. Aggrieved, the McBrooms timely appealed the chancellor's judgment to this Court on October 4, 2012. They raised the following issues:
1. Whether the trial court erred in not finding that there was an actual, or " statutory," dedication and acceptance by Jackson County of the roadway over Spring Lake dam, including whether Jackson County's purported exclusion of maintenance responsibility for Spring Lake Drive East over Spring Lake dam by resolution was unlawful.
2. Whether the trial court erred in not finding that there was an implied, or " common law," dedication and acceptance to Jackson County of the disputed
roadway, so as to create a public easement.
3. Whether the trial court erred in not finding the existence of an easement or right-of-way by prescription in favor of public ownership of the disputed roadway by Jackson County.
4. Whether the trial court erred in not awarding injunctive relief ordering Jackson County to provide maintenance to the roadway and substrate dam.
5. Whether the trial court erred in not awarding the plaintiffs attorney fees and costs of court.
Finding the McBrooms' other contentions to be without merit, we address only their first two assignments of error.
Whether the chancellor erroneously concluded that Jackson County was not obligated to maintain Spring Lake Drive East over Spring Lake Dam by virtue of statutory and common law dedication and acceptance.
¶10. The McBrooms claim that continuous public use of Spring Lake Drive East, the sole means of vehicular access to the Spring Lake Subdivision from 1972 through 2006, evidences intent of the subdivision developer at the time the plat was approved to dedicate the access roadway to public use, notwithstanding Jackson County's attempted refusal in the final plat to accept the roadway. The McBrooms further argue that Jackson County's acceptance of the Spring Lake Subdivision final plat with the directive that the " developer perpetually maintain the entrance route into said subdivision along the dam" constituted an ultra vires action. Jackson County counters that the roadway over Spring Lake Dam was not included in the legal description of the plat and that, while the county specifically did accept the roads included within the plat's legal description of the subdivision, the roadway over Spring Lake Dam was not included among those roads accepted. The chancellor found that, at the time of trial in 2012, the McBrooms were the fee simple owners of the Spring Lake Dam and roadway and that, in 1972, Jackson County had not acted ultra vires by conditioning acceptance of the final plat on the developer's maintenance of the dam and roadway.
¶11. The findings of fact of a chancellor " will not be disturbed unless manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous." Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So.3d 274, 285 (Miss. 2009) (quoting Sanderson v. Sanderson, 824 So.2d 623, 625 (Miss. 2002) (quoting Consol. Pipe & Supply Co. v. Colter, 735 So.2d 958, 961 (Miss. 1999))). However, " the Court will not hesitate to reverse if it finds the chancellor's decision is manifestly wrong, or that the court applied an erroneous legal standard." Lowrey, 25 So.3d at 285 (quoting Owen v. Owen, 928 So.2d 156, 160 (Miss. 2006)). " A chancellor's conclusions of law are reviewed de novo." Lowrey, 25 So.3d at 285 (citing Chesney v. Chesney, 910 So.2d 1057, 1060 (Miss. 2005)).
¶12. This Court has defined " dedication" as " the setting aside of land for public use." Nettleton Church of Christ v. Conwill, 707 So.2d 1075, 1076 (Miss. 1997). Private land may be dedicated to public use in two ways, pursuant to statute and under the common law. Conwill, 707 So.2d at 1076 (citing Dedication 23 Am. Jur. 2d § 3). According to this Court, " [t]wo distinctions separate the different types of dedication." Id. " First, the common law dedication operates by way of an equitable estoppel, whereas a statutory dedication operates by way of grant. Second, a common law dedication usually creates a mere easement, whereas in a statutory
dedication the fee of the property is in the ...