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Incline Village Board of Trustees v. Edler

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

April 30, 2019

INCLINE VILLAGE BOARD OF TRUSTEES, Respondent,
v.
MATTHEW F. EDLER and ANDREA EDLER, Appellants.

          Appeal From The Circuit Court Of ST. Charles County The Honorable Daniel G. Pelikan, Judge.

          Laura Denvir Stith, Judge.

         Mathew and Andrea Edler appeal from a judgment ordering them to remove a dock they built on a lake that abuts their home but that is owned by a neighboring subdivision. Although Missouri recognizes riparian rights for properties abutting natural bodies of water, this lake is artificial, as it was built by the founder of the adjoining subdivision and has since been maintained by the owners of properties in that subdivision. The Edlers have never had the right to use the lake based on their ownership of the abutting land, nor have they otherwise established an easement for use of the lake. In the absence of such an easement, they did not acquire riparian rights in the lake. The judgment directing them to remove the dock is affirmed. The award of attorney's fees to the trustees is reversed as no special circumstances justifying such an award were shown.

         I. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The circuit court made findings of fact based on a stipulation of the parties as supplemented by limited additional testimony. Neither party challenges these findings on appeal. It found that, in 1974, Sherwood Builders, Inc., built the subdivision Incline Village in St. Charles County. As an amenity for Incline Village, Sherwood dammed a creek and created a man-made lake called Main Lake (but in some documents referred to as Incline Village Lake). Incline Village subdivision surrounds only a portion of Main Lake. Land not owned by Incline Village abuts other portions of Main Lake. The lakebed itself, however, is entirely within Incline Village, and it is conceded no properties outside Incline Village have any ownership interest in the lakebed.

         Sherwood Builders also established an "Indenture of Trust and Restrictions of Incline Village," which created a board of trustees ("trustees") tasked with maintaining Main Lake, collecting assessments for its upkeep, and enforcing certain restrictions on its use. Among other provisions, the indenture provided:

No structures or other improvements shall be made on or to any common area, including any body of water, other than such structures or improvements which are made by the trustees for the benefit of all lot owners. Except that, the owner of each lot which abuts any body of water, may construct one boat dock on such body of water, provided that, said boat dock extends from said lot and is first approved in writing by the trustees.

         Although this provision prohibits the Incline Village lot owners whose properties do not abut Main Lake from building docks on the lake, all Incline Village lot owners otherwise have the right "to the exclusive use and benefit" of Main Lake.

         In 1996, Sherwood Builders conveyed all the land on which Incline Village sat, including the Main Lake lakebed, to the trustees. That year, a circuit court ordered Incline Village lot owners to begin paying a "special assessment" of $415 per year for five years to fund the improvement of Main Lake. The court also ordered the lot owners to pay an annual assessment fee of $100 for a "preventative and remedial maintenance program" over the life of Main Lake. In 2012, the trustees entered into a class action settlement with the Incline Village lot owners that raised the minimum per-year assessment fees to $495 in addition to the special assessment. The trustees used the money from these assessments to dredge excess silt from the lakebed and to heighten the dam. Through these assessments, to date, the trustees have spent approximately $2.864 million in maintaining Main Lake.

         In 1997, Peter Lenzenhuber began acquiring property that abuts portions of Main Lake but is not a part of Incline Village. The lots on this property became part of Sumac Ridge subdivision. The circuit court found Lenzenhuber had decided, "based on the cost of joining Incline Village … and the potential future liabilities associated with the lake at Incline Village, I see no reason to have Sumac Ridge join Incline Village. … Purchasers of Sumac Ridge are aware that the lake is owned by Incline Village Trustees." Accordingly, Lenzenhuber's deed, which includes the lot the Edlers eventually purchased, specifically states the transfer is of certain described property but "EXCEPTING THEREFROM those parts conveyed to the Trustees of Incline Village by deeds recorded in Book 1099 page 25 end Book 1237 page 55 of the St. Charles County records" and "EXCEPTING THEREFROM the following: INCLINE VILLAGE LAKE."

         Matthew and Andrea Edler own a home and another lot in the Incline Village subdivision, neither of which abuts Main Lake, as well as the lot they purchased in the Sumac Ridge subdivision that abuts Main Lake. The Edlers pay the annual assessment on their Incline Village property to maintain Main Lake and, in accordance with the express terms of the Incline Village indenture, have the right to Main Lake's "exclusive use and benefit." But, as the Edlers admit, the indenture explicitly does not allow them to build a dock because their Incline Village property does not abut Main Lake, and the original documents transmitting property that included their lot in Sumac Ridge expressly excluded transfer of any rights to the lake. The circuit court found the Edlers' own deed is silent about any right to use Main Lake.

         The circuit court found at least one of the trustees had told the Edlers they could not build a dock on Main Lake before construction began, and the parties stipulated the trustees objected to the building of the dock. The Edlers, nonetheless, constructed a floating dock on Main Lake at the point where their Sumac Ridge lot abuts the lake. The Incline Village trustees brought suit seeking a declaratory judgment, damages for trespass, and the removal of the dock.

         Based on the parties' joint stipulation of material facts as supplemented by limited additional testimony, the circuit court ruled in favor of the trustees. It held the Edlers had no riparian rights to Main Lake from their ownership of the Sumac Ridge lot, and the Edlers' construction of the boat dock on Main Lake was an unauthorized use of the trustees' property. It ordered removal of the dock. It also found special circumstances existed supporting the award of attorney's fees of $70, 000 in favor of the trustees because "the Defendants' built their dock on Plaintiffs' property without seeking permission from the Plaintiff and after having been told by Plaintiff that the Defendants did not have the right to build on Plaintiffs property." The Edlers appeal.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the parties submitted a joint stipulation of material facts, "the only question before this court is whether the trial court drew the proper legal conclusions from the facts stipulated." Schroeder v. Horack, 592 S.W.2d 742, 744 (Mo. banc 1979) (internal quotation omitted). This Court reviews determinations of law de novo. ITT Commercial Finance Corp. v. Mid-Am. Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993).[1]

         III. THE EDLERS DO NOT HAVE RIPARIAN RIGHTS TO USE MAIN LAKE BECAUSE IT IS AN ARTIFICIAL LAKE AND THEY HAVE NO OWNERSHIP OR EASEMENT RIGHTS TO ITS USE

         A riparian right is "[t]he right of a landowner whose property borders on a body of water or watercourse. Such a landowner traditionally has the right to make reasonable use of the water." Riparian Right, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014); Bollinger v. Henry,375 S.W.2d 161, 166 (Mo. 1964). Generally, riparian rights arise naturally as an incident of owning land that abuts a body of water. "In all states where the common law has not been changed, the owners of land abutting on bodies of water are accorded certain rights by reason of their adjacency which are different from those belonging to the public ...


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