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Martin v. Bicknell

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 18, 2014

JAMES THOMAS MARTIN, et al., APPELLANTS,
v.
NOEL L. BICKNELL, et al., APPELLEES

Argued October 22, 2013.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-0420-12). (Hon. Gregory E. Jackson, Trial Judge).

Thomas G. Corcoran, Jr., for appellant, who was also on the brief.

Valerie L. Hletko, with whom Alexander S. Leonhardt was on the brief, for appellee.

Before BECKWITH, EASTERLY, and MCLEESE, Associate Judges.

OPINION

Page 706

Easterly, Associate Judge:

Where the right to use real property is at issue, it cannot be gainsaid: Clarity is best; ambiguity breeds discord. This case is about the use of adjoining or shared--depending on one's view of the facts--driveways. Neighbors James Thomas Martin and his spouse Antoinette Baarns, and Noel Bicknell and his spouse, Caitlin Mackenzie,[1] have a dispute over use of the driveway from which they gain access to their respective garages, a driveway that bridges their common property line. The

Page 707

Martins sued and asserted that they have an easement to use a portion of the Bicknells' side of the driveway. The court determined that the Martins had failed to state a claim, either for an implied grant of an easement or a prescriptive easement, and dismissed their complaint. We review the trial court's order de novo[2] and reverse. We publish this opinion in the hope that a clearer explication of the requirements to claim an implied grant of an easement or a prescriptive easement will help District residents to better understand their own and their neighbors' property rights, and will perhaps even encourage resolution of similar disputes out of court.

I. Facts and Procedural History[3]

The Martins and the Bicknells own adjoining townhomes (on Square 1327 lot 52 and 53 respectively), built by the same developer in the 1930's, in the Foxhall Village neighborhood in the District of Columbia. Behind their homes, a twelve-foot-wide[4] driveway connects their garages to an alleyway. The property line dividing their lots falls down the center of the driveway.

The Martins purchased their house on lot 52 in 1969. For more than thirty years, without incident, they gained access to their garage via the common driveway, and in so doing, drove over their property line with lot 53 (the Martins' neighbors similarly drove over the Martins' side of the driveway to gain garage access). In 2001, the then-owner of the neighboring house, Edward Ponzi, converted his garage into a rental unit, so that it was no longer usable for parking, but the Martins' use of the driveway continued unchanged. Later that year Mr. Ponzi sold his property to the Bicknells. The Bicknells, who did not have a garage for parking, informed the Martins that they intended to park their car on their side of the driveway. The Martins insisted that when the Bicknells parked their car in their driveway that they ensure that one front and back wheel of the vehicle were parked on the dirt of their back yard, so that the parked car did not impede the Martins' access to their garage. When the Bicknells did not park their car in this manner, the Martins would ask them to move their car and the Bicknells complied. This continued until January 2, 2012. On that day, the Bicknells' car was parked so as to block the Martins from gaining access to their garage and the Bicknells refused to move their vehicle.

By this point the relationship between the neighbors had apparently soured and little time was devoted to an out-of-court resolution. On January 18, 2012, the Martins sued the Bicknells, alleging that the Martins had a legal right to use the Bicknells' side of the driveway either through (1) an implied grant of an easement made by the original developer and conveyed to the Martins when they purchased the property " together with all easements appurtenant thereto" or, in the alternative, (2) a prescriptive easement through the Martins' " open, visible, notorious, continuous, exclusive and adverse" use of the driveway.

Page 708

The Bicknells filed a motion to dismiss under S.Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6). With respect to the Martins' claim of an implied grant of an easement, the Bicknells argued that it was insufficient for the Martins to allege that an implied easement was " reasonably necessary" to the full use and enjoyment of their property, and that instead a showing of " strict necessity" is required. With respect to the Martins' claim of a prescriptive easement, the Bicknells did not dispute the Martins' recitation of the requisite elements, but argued that the Martins had ...


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