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Koch v. St. Louis County

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

August 29, 2017

MARTIN KOCH, JR., et al., Appellants,
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI, et al., Respondents.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County Hon. Barbara W. Wallace


         Martin Koch, Steve Brewer and Richard Brown (collectively "Appellants") appeal from the summary judgment entered against them, finding that St. Louis County, the County Executive and members of the County Council (collectively "the County") have authority to sell a portion of Sylvan Spring Park to the Veteran Affairs Administration for expansion of the Jefferson Barracks cemetery. Appellants assert that the park was dedicated to the public to be used only as a park in perpetuity or, alternatively, is held by the County in trust for the public's use as park only, precluding the County from selling it for use as something other than a park. Appellants have failed to establish the elements of a common law dedication or the existence of any type of a trust. Therefore, we affirm the summary judgment in the County's favor.

         In 1950, St. Louis County acquired the land now known as Sylvan Springs Park by quitclaim deed from the federal government, acting through the General Services Administration ("GSA"). The deed was made "under and pursuant to" the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, the Surplus Property Act of 1944, as amended, and all regulations promulgated thereunder. Those laws, and particularly the amendments to the Surplus Property Act enacted by Public Law 616 in 1948, authorized the GSA to convey to a political subdivision like St. Louis County "all of the right, title and interest of the United States in and to any surplus land, . . . which, in the determination of the Secretary of the Interior, is suitable and desirable for use as a public park, public recreational area, or historic monument, for the benefit of the public." Pub. L. No. 616. Such conveyances were to be made at half the fair market value of the property. Id. The GSA was required to include in any deed of such a conveyance a provision mandating that the property "shall be used and maintained for the purpose for which it was conveyed for a period of not less than twenty years;" if the property ceased to be used for that purpose, it reverted to the federal government. Id. The GSA was also authorized to include other conditions in the deed necessary to safeguard the interests of the United States. Id.

         Consistent with these provisions, the 1950 deed provides that the GSA does "remise, release and forever quitclaim" the property at issue here to St. Louis County "for and in consideration of the continuous use and maintenance of the premises by [St. Louis County] as and for public park and recreational purposes, and in consideration of the payment of [$3, 500]." The market value of this land at the time was $7, 000. Excepted from the conveyance were the government's utility lines and systems on that land, and the government also expressly reserved necessary rights-of-way and easements for continuous use, along with certain mining rights. The deed provided that St. Louis County was "to have and to hold the said premises . . . subject to the reservations, conditions and covenants herein contained." There are seven enumerated conditions, the first of which is the one required by the Surplus Property Act, and it states:

For a period of twenty (20) years the premises above described shall be continuously used and maintained as and for public park and recreational purposes, for incidental purposes pertaining thereto, but for no other purposes.

         Also during that twenty-year period, the covenants required St. Louis County to file biennial reports with the GSA demonstrating the premises was being used as intended and to obtain the GSA's permission before selling, leasing or otherwise disposing of the property. Another condition stated that the federal government had the right to possess and use the property free of charge during any national emergency; if this were to occur during the first twenty years, St. Louis County was responsible for all costs associated with this emergency use, but after that twenty-year period, the federal government would have to pay such costs.

         St. Louis County could "secure abrogation of all the said conditions and covenant" by paying the balance of the full market value for the property during that twenty-year period. In the event of a breach of any of these conditions or covenants during the twenty-year period "all right, title and interest in and to all of the said premises shall revert to and become the property of the United States of America at its option" and it shall have the immediate right of entry and possession of the property. But, the deed provided, "in the event the [GSA] fails to exercise the option to re-enter the premises for any such breach within twenty-one years from the date hereof, all of said conditions and covenants, together with all rights of the United States of America to re-enter thereon as hereinabove provided, shall as of that date terminate and be extinguished."

         The record on appeal reveals the following undisputed facts about what has happened since the execution of the 1950 deed. The land has been used by the public and maintained by the County as a park since 1950. The County held a public dedication ceremony for the park, which was initially named Rock Springs Park, but in 1954 became Sylvan Springs Park. In 1969, voters in St. Louis County approved a general obligation bond for the development of new parks and the improvement of existing parks, including Sylvan Springs Park. The bond proceeds were all spent by the 1980s. In 1980, the County leased a portion of the park to Bi-State for construction of a Park and Ride Lot. The County now intends to sell 38 of the 70 acres that comprises the park to the Veterans Affairs Administration for expansion of neighboring Jefferson Barracks cemetery, which is predicted to reach capacity for gravesites within its existing perimeters in the next five years. As part of its legislative process of approving this sale, the County Council held a public forum in May of 2013, at which time it received a petition with over 2, 000 signatures in support of this proposed sale.

         Appellants, as resident taxpayers in St. Louis County, filed this lawsuit asking for a declaration that the County had no lawful authority to sell, transfer or convey any part of the park for development as a cemetery and seeking an injunction preventing it from doing so. Appellants asserted several alternative grounds for support of its position: (1) that the 1950 deed was a common law dedication of the land to the public by the federal government; (2) that the County's actions thereafter constituted a common law dedication by the County; or (3) that the 1969 bond created a trust under which the County was to maintain the land as a park for the benefit of the public.[1] The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the County's motion and denied Appellants' motion. This appeal follows.

         We review the summary judgment de novo. ITT Commercial Finance Corporation v. Mid-America Marine Supply Corporation, 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993). We review the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered and afford that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Id. Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 380; Rule 74.04. A defending party, like the County here, may establish a right to summary judgment by showing facts that negate one of the elements of the claim against it, a lack of evidence to support one of those elements or no genuine dispute of the facts needed to prove its affirmative defense to that claim. See ITT Commercial, 854 S.W.2d at 381. The County has established that Appellants cannot prove the elements of a common law dedication or the existence of a trust.

         The first two points on appeal address the common law dedication claims. Common law dedication is proven by showing: (1) that the owner, by unequivocal action, intended to dedicate the land to public use; (2) that the land dedicated was accepted by the public; and (3) that the land dedicated is used by the public. Whittom v. Alexander-Richardson Partnership, 851 S.W.2d 504, 508 (Mo. banc 1993). "A common law dedication is a continuous, irrevocable offer to dedicate, which the dedicator cannot retract." Citizens for Preservation of Buehler Park v. City of Rolla, 230 S.W.3d 635, 639 (Mo. App. S.D. 2007) ("Buehler Park") (internal quotations marks and citations omitted). Though a dedication generally cannot be revoked, the property reverts to the landowner or successors if it is no longer possible to fulfill the purpose of the dedication or if the dedicated use of property is abandoned. Id. Here, there is no contention that the land cannot be used as a park or that use as a park has been abandoned.

         The landowner's intent to set apart land for public use is the foundation of common law dedication:

Such intent must be unequivocally manifested, expressly or by plain implication. The owner's acts or declarations must convincingly demonstrate a purpose to create a public right to the land adverse to himself. Common law dedication requires the landowner to do something by act or by word which would unequivocally point ...

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