Darlene F. Edwards et al., Plaintiffs
Cynthia S. Blackman et al., Defendants
Jeffrey L. Hjelm, Justice Maine Superior Court.
Trial on the complaint and counterclaim was held on December 16, 17, 19 and 23, 2013, and January 27, 2014. On each hearing date, all parties appeared with or through counsel. Following the trial, the parties supplemented the record with additional transcribed testimony and submitted written argument. This order adjudicates all claims.
Plaintiffs and counterclaim defendants Darlene F. Edwards and Lewis M. Edwards jointly own contiguous parcels of waterfront land in Owls Head. A way passes over their land and ends in a cul-de-sac that is partly on their land and partly on the land of the abutting landowner, the Arthur Titcomb Living Trust. The way is either part of or an extension of the Cooper's Beach Road (an issue in dispute here). The individual defendants and counterclaim plaintiffs have ownership interests in various parcels of land located near the Edwardses' property. Cynthia S. Blackman and her brother, Eliot A. Scott, jointly own land located at 15 Water's Edge Lane in Owls Head; Blackman also owns land located at 24 Montgomery Lane; and Blackman, Eliot Scott and their parents, Nathalie M. Scott and Willis A. Scott, Jr., jointly own land located at 34 Cooper's Beach Road. The claims in this action center on the question of whether persons other than the Edwardses have the light to use the Edwardses' land. The Edwardses contend that no such rights exist,  except for certain common law rights held by the public to use the intertidal zone, which the Edwardses have not contested in this action. The Town of Owls Head contests the Edwardses' claim that it did not acquire rights to the way located on their property by dedication and acceptance, and the Town contests the Edwardses' claim that the Town has not acquired a public easement over the way. The individual defendants contend that they have rights to use the way over the Edwardses' property and the beach located 011 their property by virtue of public and private prescriptive easement rights appurtenant and in gross, and also by deed.
The court first addresses the land use rights implicated by the Edwardses' claims against the Town and then the claims between the Edwardses and the individual defendants.
A, Claims against the Town
The dispute between the Edwardses and the Town of Owls Head is whether the way that passes over the Edwardses' land became a public easement road by dedication and acceptance, and separately whether the public has acquired prescriptive rights over the way. The court concludes that the way is a public easement road pursuant to dedication and acceptance.
A public way may be created by dedication from the landowners and acceptance by the municipality when
the owner of such property or interest has filed with the municipal officers a petition, agreement, deed, affidavit or other writing specifically describing the property or interest and its location, and stating that the owner voluntarily offers to transfer such interests to the municipality without claim for damages, or has filed in the registry of deeds an approved subdivision plot plan which describes property to be appropriated for public use.
A municipality may accept a dedication of property or interests therein by an affirmative vote of its legislative body.
23 M.R.S. § 3025. To establish dedication and acceptance, the grantor's intention to dedicate the land for public use must be clear. Town of Kittery v. MacKenzie , 2001 ME 170, ¶ 10, 785 A.2d 1251, 1254. A municipality may accept a dedication by means of a vote of approval included in a warrant. Vachon v. Inhabitants of the Town of Lisbon , 295 A.2d 255, 260 (Me. 1972). The party seeking to assert the public interest by dedication has the burden of proof. See Comber v. Inhabitants of the Plantation of Dennistown , 398 A.2d 376, 378 (Me. 1979). Consequently, as the proponent of the claim that the way is public, the Town bears the burden of proof.
Here, the Town relies on municipal action that was taken at a town meeting held in August 1986, when the " Town voted by hand to accept the dedication of a public [e]asement over Cooper's Beach Road." This action was predicated on two written " agreement[s]" signed by people who lived on or near Cooper's Beach Road. One instrument identifies its group of signatories as " owners of property consisting of Coopers Beach Road. . . ." The second identifies another group of different signatories as " abutting property owners on Coopers Beach Road." The texts of the two documents are otherwise identical and recite their agreement that the Town would accept the road " as a public easement, without claim for damage." In 1986, one John McLoon owned the land now owned by the Edwardses. He signed the abutters' petition in support of the easement dedication.
The Town makes several arguments that the court should not reach the merits of the dedication issue. It contends first that the Edwardses are time-barred from challenging the 1986 acceptance, because any such challenge amounts to an appeal from final governmental action and is therefore governed by M.R.Civ.P. 80B, which requires an appeal to be filed within 30 days of notice of the underling action, Because no such appeal was filed, the Town argues that the Edwardses cannot do so now.
In 1986, " Cooper's Beach Road" actually consisted of a cluster of roads that now have four different names. All of the people who signed the dedication agreement as " owners" had parcels of property located on what is now Water's Edge Lane. Those who signed as " abutters, " including McLoon, owned land 011 what is now Cooper's Beach Road, Osprey Lane, Montgomery Lane as well as the remaining parcels on Water's Edge Lane. One of the Edwardses' arguments is that the dedication did not adequately identify which way or ways were offered to the Town as public roads. They argue that because McLoon identified himself as an abutter to the way that was the subject of the dedication, he understood that Cooper's Beach Road ended at his southerly property line and did not cross onto his land. In this way, his property would abut the terminus of Cooper's Beach Road. If this contention is correct, then the dedicated way is not located on the Edwardses' property, and McLoon would have had no reason to appeal, because the Town's acceptance of Cooper's Beach Road as a public way would not have aggrieved him or his successors-in-interest. On the other hand, if Cooper's Beach Road as accepted by the Town extended across the Edwardses' property to and including the cul-de-sac,  then any appeal from the 1986 acceptance would have been subject to the filing deadline prescribed by rule 80B. Therefore, there is an analytical identity between the procedural argument advanced by the Town and the merits of the dedication issue; if the Town is correct on the merits, then it is also correct in its argument that the claim is time-barred, Thus, consideration of the latter requires consideration of the former.
The Town also argues that the Edwardses are barred from contesting the Town's claim of a public interest in the disputed way, because it has been prejudiced by the delay in their initiation of the challenge (laches), and because they and their predecessors have accepted the benefit of it in the meantime in the form of snowplowing services subsidized by the Town (estoppel). Laches and estoppel are defenses of avoidance on which the Town bears the burden of proof. See Hansen v. Sunday River Skiway Corp ., 1999 ME 45, ¶ 11, n.2, 726 A.2d 220, 223.
The Town has proven neither defense. As an element of laches, the proponent must show, among other things, that the delay in asserting a legal claim has prejudiced the respondent. See Van Dam v. Spickler , 2009 ME 36, ¶ 12, 968 A.2d 1040, 1044, Here, the Town complains primarily that because McLoon died in 1987, the Town cannot present direct evidence about his intention when he signed the abutters' petition. However, the Edwards' are similarly deprived of that evidence. Further, there does exist extrinsic evidence on that point, including testimony from the person who discussed the petition with McLoon when he signed it and the fact that McLoon signed the dedication agreement. Beyond this, because the Town has not shown that it has lost evidence that would have been favorable, its laches argument is not persuasive.
Similarly, the Town has not proven that the Town's use of the road to plow snow has created such a benefit to the Edwardses and their predecessors that they are now estopped from claiming that the way is not public. The Edwardses have owned the property since 2011 but use it only seasonally, so snowplowing has not benefitted them significantly. The magnitude of any such benefit accruing to prior owners is not clear in the record. Further, the length of the way on their land is not particularly long, and the plowing contractors needed to plow it anyway in order to be able to plow the portion of Cooper's Beach Road that is not at issue here, because the plows use the cul-de-sac to turn around. Therefore, the Town has not established that the Edwardses are equitably estopped from seeking an adjudication that the way located on their property is not public. See Blue Star Corp. v. CKF Properties, LLC , 2009 ME 101, ¶ 27, 980 A.2d 1270, 1277,
This leads to the merits of the dedication and acceptance issue, where the Town has the burden of proving that the interest dedicated by McLoon was the portion of the way that crossed over his land (now the Edwardses') and that the description of the way accepted by the Town clearly described this portion of it. The court finds that the Town has proven these points.
Both aspects of the dedication and acceptance issue must be considered in light of the historical background of the way at issue. Through contractors that it hired, since at least 1973 the Town continuously had plowed and sanded the way over the Edwardses' land and the cul-de-sac, as well as the other sections of the Cooper's Beach Road network. The Town announced its intention to stop that arrangement for all private ways located in the municipality at the end of the 1985-86 winter season, after it had learned that public funds could not be used for a benefit that was deemed private because the roads themselves were private. In response, at a special town meeting held in August 1986, members of the Town's voting public considered petitions to accept at least eleven private ways as public easement roads. A way described as " Cooper's Beach Road" was one of them. In addition to listing these proposed dedications, the warrant for the special town meeting called for consideration of a proposal to establish standards that the roads would need to meet. The voters ...