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Holcombc v. Delhi Lakeview Estates, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 2, 2017


         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Delaware County, Thomas A. Bitter, Judge.

         Holcomb and his business, Holcomb Enterprises, LLC, appeal the district court's judgment that denied his request for a declaration that an easement by implication in favor of his property existed across the "Waterfront Access Area" of Lake Delhi.

          Peter C. Riley of Tom Riley Law Firm, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellants.

          Janelle Grace Ewing of The Sayer Law Group, P.C., Waterloo, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and McDonald, JJ.

          DOYLE, Judge.

         In 1977 Camp-O-Delhi, Inc. (C-O-D) purchased land adjacent to Lake Delhi in Delaware County, Iowa. In 1984 the land was platted as the Camp-O-Delhi subdivision. The subdivision consists of some 92 lots, lake frontage area, and also road area. Twenty of the lots front the lake, including lot 89, the property that is the subject of this litigation. In 1984, C-O-D also recorded restrictive covenants for the subdivision. In 1985, Delhi Lakeview Estates Landowners Association, Inc. (DLE) was formed and became successor to C-O-D. DLE purchased from C-O-D the lake frontage area, which is a strip of land between the shoreline and the lakefront lots-basically the beach area-called the "Waterfront Access Area." DLE also purchased C-O-D's docks. Also in 1985, C-O-D sold lot 89 to the Stenders. In 2005 DLE recorded restrictive covenants for the subdivision. They mirror the 1984 C-O-D covenants.

         Ownership of lot 89 passed through several hands before Albert Holcomb IV purchased on contract a portion of lot 89 in 2006.[1] Included in the purchase was a bar-and-grill business located on that lot, known over time as Camp-O or Camp-O-Delhi. Holcomb and his business, Holcomb Enterprises, LLC, operated the bar and grill as Camp-O Beach Resort after its purchase.[2] The lake side of the lot Holcomb purchased abuts the "Waterfront Access Area" of Lake Delhi. In 2007 Holcomb requested DLE furnish materials to repair or replace DLE's deteriorating docks. When DLE denied Holcomb's request, he removed the DLE docks, purchased materials, and built new docks. His application for a dock permit was denied because DLE, the riparian owner, would not sign the permit application. In 2008, Holcomb was cited by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for failing to have a dock permit. Holcomb shuttered the business sometime in 2008 or 2009 when renewal of his liquor license was denied. After an appeals process, Holcomb's liquor license was approved in the summer of 2010. He was preparing to reopen the bar when, in July 2010, a major flooding event caused the dam that created Lake Delhi to fail. Holcomb's bar and grill had six feet of standing water during the flooding. The lake was drained dry. After the flood, the building was condemned because "it was off its foundation, " and sometime thereafter, the building was torn down. Holcomb was uncertain if and when the dam would be replaced and the lake restored, so he "left the property as is until the dam return[ed]." However, he removed the docks he had built and put them in storage. Holcomb then moved to suburban Portland, Oregon, where he resided at the time of trial.

         At the time of purchase, Holcomb obtained the property's abstract containing its chain of title. Included therein is a May 1985 warranty deed conveying to DLE the "waterfront and roads as shown" on the 1984 Camp-O-Delhi subdivision plat and "all Boat Docks along the waterfront" of that subdivision. The deed noted it was "subject to all restrictive covenants of record." The recorded covenants specified that the lake's frontage would "be owned and maintained by the lot owners' association"-DLE-and could not be sold. The covenants also included that the docks would "be owned by [DLE]" and could "be rented by the year to lot owners, " with the income from those rentals being used to pay the association's expenses. Holcomb understood the beach between the waterfront and lot 89 was owned by DLE, as were the existing docks. Upon the purchase, Holcomb was provided with a copy of the association's by-laws. The by-laws state the association owns, among other things, "Water Frontage includ[ing] the beach, the boat ramp, and the entire shoreline except for lots A, B, C, D, and O" and "All Association docks." The by- laws also provide:

Dock and Dock Repairs: Each occupied lot is entitled to one dock space. Docks are assigned on a seniority basis with a move up list that will be updated each time a move is made. The dock list, the move up list and a list of landowners who have paid their dock fee will be posted in the Association owned shed. You will be responsible for the maintenance of your assigned dock. Materials for repairs will be provided by landowners Association.

         In June 2010, a month before the dam broke, Holcomb filed suit against DLE, seeking the district court to declare Holcomb had "a right of easement across shoreline property and Waterfront Access Area, and for other relief as is just and equitable in the premises, " under theories of easement by prescription and easement by implication. The petition alleged that "because previously existing docks, " which patrons of his resort had used to access his resort, "were in a state of disrepair and posed a hazard to users" and DLE "refused to provide the material to rebuild or repair the docks, " he "constructed docks on the waterfront . . . adjacent to his property on property owned by [DLE]." The petition stated Holcomb had attempted to obtain a dock permit but was "denied as a result of the refusal of [DLE] to sign the dock-permit application."

         The litigation between Holcomb and DLE was "put on hold in order to attempt to arrive at a mutually agreed upon resolution of the issues." The matter was continued by agreement of the parties over the years, and trial was later set for 2016, after work had begun on the dam's reconstruction and on new rules and regulations regarding the use of the subdivision's properties, including Holcomb's property. While the dam was under construction and no lake existed, DLE "worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to rebuild the [d]ocks in compliance with state law and regulations and to build a concrete wall." Even though there was no lake, DLE continued to rent the newly constructed docks to members in good standing, and those members continued "to pay all dues, assessments and the dock rental fees." DLE claimed Holcomb had not paid the "annual assessment or dock fee for the second half of 2010" and for the years that followed.

         Trial to the court on Holcomb's petition was held in March 2016. Thereafter, the district court entered its judgment denying Holcomb's "claim for easement by prescription and/or by implication." The court found Holcomb, having paid DLE's dock rental fees and yearly assessments in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, did not take any affirmative action to demonstrate open and hostile use of the docks which would have been necessary to establish a prescriptive easement. Additionally, the court found no easement by implication, explaining:

There is no evidence that DLE ever intended to create an easement for Holcomb. His claim is no better than any other property owner on the lake who has maintained a dock for many years. His claim is that the docks have existed for a very long time for the benefit of [his and prior lot 89 owners'] property, but there is no proof that any prior owner considered such use to constitute an easement. Lastly, it is debatable as to whether the docks are reasonably necessary for the use and enjoyment of [Holcomb's] property, or whether they are a mere convenience. The only claim made by [Holcomb] is that ...

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