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Foundation for Preservation of Historic Georgetown v. Arnold

December 15, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Henry F. Greene, Trial Judge).

Before Ferren and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

FARRELL, Associate Judge: This is an appeal from an order granting summary judgment to a property owner (Arnold) in a suit for declaratory and injunctive relief brought by appellant (the Foundation) *fn1 to enforce a Deed of Scenic, Open Space, and Architectural Facade Easement (hereafter the Easement). Granted to the Foundation in 1980 by a previous owner of the property, the Easement was binding on Arnold as a successor-owner. The Foundation argues that Arnold violated the Easement (1) by laterally enclosing the space between two former "doghouse-style" dormer windows on the sloped rear roof of the dwelling so as to create a single "shed dormer" window, and (2) by erecting a seasonal awning structure across the rear patio of the house. We affirm.


The parties' dispute concerns primarily two provisions of the Easement. The first, section 1, prohibited Arnold in relevant part from undertaking any

construction, alteration, or remodeling or any other thing . . . on the subject premises which would affect either the exterior surfaces herein described, or increase the height, or alter the exterior facade . . . or the appearance of the building located thereon, insofar as it is depicted in the photograph attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit A . . . .

Section 1 again defined "the exterior surfaces of improvements . . . on the subject premises" as

those depicted in the photograph attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit A, being essentially those exterior surfaces of improvements on the aforesaid premises which are visible from 33rd Street, N.W. [the front of the house], in Old Georgetown, but in the event of uncertainty the exterior surfaces of improvements visible in the photograph in Exhibit A shall control.

The parties agree that the surfaces visible in the photograph (Exhibit A) are essentially those visible from the front of the house on 33rd Street. The Foundation, therefore, concedes that section 1 of the Easement does not prohibit the changes to the dwelling at issue here.

The Foundation relies, instead, on section 4 of the Easement, which provides that, with an exception not relevant here, "no extension of the existing structure or erection of additional structures shall be permitted." The Foundation contends that Arnold's enclosure of the exterior space between the two dormer windows "extended" the house within the unambiguous meaning of this operative verb in section 4, and that even if "extension" were ambiguous as used in the section, the trial court erred in refusing to look to an appraisal document prepared contemporaneously with the grant of the Easement as proof that the parties intended to prohibit "density increases" to the interior space of the house such as the disputed enclosure modestly achieves. The Foundation makes similar arguments with respect to the patio awning.


The parties each claim that they were entitled to summary judgment. We must affirm the grant of summary judgment to Arnold if we conclude that there was no genuine dispute of material fact and that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 814 (D.C. 1983). Deeds, like contracts, are "construed in accordance with the intention of the parties insofar as it can be discerned from the text of the instrument." Simmons v. Rosemond, 223 F. Supp. 61, 67 (D.D.C. 1963). See Milligan v. Milligan, 624 A.2d 474, 477 (Me. 1993). if a deed is unambiguous, the court's role is limited to applying the meaning of the words, see Smith v. Smith, 622 A.2d 642, 646 (Del. 1993), but if it is ambiguous, the parties' intention is to be ascertained by examining the document in light of the circumstances surrounding its execution and, as a final resort, by applying rules of construction. 26 C.J.S. Deeds §§ 82 (a), 92; see also Norken Corp. v. McGahan, 823 P.2d 622, 626 (Alaska 1991) (court should re sort to rules of construction only after failing to ascertain intent from deed and surrounding circumstances); Heyen v. Hartnett, 235 Kan. 117, 679 P.2d 1152, 1157 (Kan. 1984) (absent extrinsic evidence of intent, rule of construction will apply to resolve ambiguity in deed).

The very most that can be said of section 4 favorably to the Foundation is that it is ambiguous, *fn2 as the trial Judge recognized. "Extension," which is not elsewhere defined in the Easement, could mean any exterior addition to the structure that -- in the Foundation's language -- adds interior space or "density" to the residence. But it could also mean an addition that (to use Arnold's terms) extends the footprint or envelope of the residence upward or outward in height, length, or width. *fn3 No other language in the Easement eliminates this ambiguity. The Foundation points to the contemporaneous appraisal report as extrinsic evidence that the parties meant the former definition, but we agree with the trial Judge that the report cannot serve to clarify the ambiguity. It was prepared solely by the grantor of the Easement, after execution of the deed, for the purpose of obtaining a federal tax deduction for a charitable donation. It therefore is not evidence of what the parties (grantor and grantee) understood the terms of the Easement to mean. *fn4 Moreover, even if it were admissible for that purpose, it does not resolve the ambiguity. For example, while' the appraisal describes the Easement as barring a "height or density increase," the increase referred to is one resulting from an "extension . . . of the existing structure" -- thus begging the question of what "extension" means. *fn5

In short, the appraisal is not competent or "sufficient evidence," Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 48 (D.C. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 62 L. Ed. 2d 761, 100 S. Ct. 1028 (1980), requiring resolution by a trier of fact of the original parties' understanding of the term "extension." We ...

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