By DOTTY NIST
A recent decision in Walton County Circuit Court has granted a request by the owners of a lot and home in the SeaHighland subdivision for quiet title to fee-simple interest of the eastern 10 feet of a 20-foot “breezeway” in the subdivision.
Quiet title court actions are filed to establish ownership of real property, and fee-simple ownership is defined as the highest possible ownership that can be held of real property. SeaHighland is a historic beach subdivision located in the Seagrove area.
In an Aug. 17, 2015 document associated with their litigation initiated in 2013, the plaintiffs, Linda and Charles Israel, owners of a lot and home at SeaHighland, made the following stipulations: In 1949, the plat for SeaHighland was accepted into the public records of the county, displaying “breezeways” between each lot in the subdivision on the east/west boundary lines. The Israels also acknowledged that the 1949 plat and restrictive covenants for the subdivision recorded in 1948 and in 1994 “contain certain easements encumbering all of the breezeways in SeaHighland….”
The covenants recorded in 1948 provided, in part, that “the breezeway spaces between the lots on the East and West sides shall be open and free of structures so as not to obstruct the view of other property owners and so as to permit the free flow of air.”
These covenants also stated, “No shrubbery, hedge or fence of a greater height than four feet shall be maintained on any part of any lot. The open space between the South ends of all lots in Blocks, J, K, and L, to the water’s edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and to a parallel line, to where the Gulf water is 15 feet deep, shall be kept open as a park and free of any type of structures so as not to obstruct the view, or bathing, or lounging facilities of property owners.”
New restrictions recorded for the subdivision in 1994 restated the information in the previous two paragraphs.
On May 14, 2013, Hugh Marse, a resident of SeaHighland and owner of a home in the subdivision at the corner of Dothan Street at CR-30A, had addressed the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). His request was for permission to repair a boardwalk within one of the subdivision breezeways. The breezeway was described as “county property” when the request was made and discussed. Approval of a license agreement between Marse and the county for repair of the boardwalk was part of the request.
The boardwalk was one said to have been used over the years by a number of families in the subdivision to access the beach.
During public comment on the request, Rick Petermann, an attorney in attendance, raised question about Marse’s legal ability to make the repairs. Petermann identified himself as representing property owners in the subdivision. He told the commissioners that the state Department of Environment Protection permit for the boardwalk had expired. Petermann also raised objection to the boardwalk itself, arguing that it should never have been built in the breezeway.
Mark Davis, county attorney, confirmed at the May 14 meeting that the DEP permit for the boardwalk had expired but indicated that that would not prevent the BCC from giving Marse permission to repair it. The BCC approved Marse’s request.
Two weeks later, on May 28, 2013, Petermann filed a lawsuit in Walton County Circuit Court on behalf of the Israels. Named as defendants were Marse, the BCC, and Gerry Demers, interim county administrator at the time.
This was an “emergency complaint” seeking temporary and permanent injunctions and a declaratory judgment.
Asserting that the breezeways were “never dedicated to Walton County,” the Israels asked the court to prevent Marse from the construction associated with the boardwalk. They argued that he had no right to do so nor traverse the breezeway and use it as an access easement to the beach.
It was noted in the lawsuit that the breezeway within which Marse planned to construct the walkover was located adjacent to the western boundary line of the Israels’ property.
“A permanent injunction will serve the public interest, because not only will it protect the rights of all the SeaHighland owners,” the Israels complaint read, “but it will also (1) prevent the Defendant County Government and Defendant Administrator from arbitrarily taking any private property rights that belong to the Israels, and (2) it will also ensure the coastal dune system is protected and not overburdened with construction — as a TDC Walkover is only 150 feet from the site of the proposed dune walkover.”
In January 2014, the Israels initiated their second lawsuit in connection with the breezeway, a quiet title action applying to the its eastern 10 feet adjacent to their lot. Named as defendants were 17 parties identified as heirs of the original developers of the SeaHighland subdivision.
In August 2015 the plaintiffs stated, among other stipulations, that only one breezeway, the one located adjacent to their property, was “at issue” in either lawsuit. In the first case, it was noted, they were seeking a determination “as to the scope of the easements connected to the subject breezeway for the purpose of allowing the Plaintiffs to enforce the easements on those they are alleging to have violated the easements.” In the second case, it was explained, they were “simply seeking to quiet title to the fee simple interest of a portion of the subject breezeway.”
Also in August 2015, a motion to consolidate the two lawsuits was granted.
In March 2016, the Israels voluntarily dismissed the original case against Marse, the county and Demers, but continued with the lawsuit filed against the heirs of the developers in which they sought quiet title to the portion of the breezeway.
In his October 2016 final judgment in favor of the Israels, Walton County Circuit Court Judge Thomas R. Santurri noted that the defendants had claimed that title to the breezeway had never passed from the original developers to any other party and that they had maintained that title remained with the defendants or others, but not the plaintiffs.
However, he continued, “The trial produced no evidence indicating that the original developers intended to retain fee simple title to the Breezeway or that the original developers ever separately conveyed fee simple title to any person or entity.”
Santurri opined that information presented by the defendants had been “legally insufficient” to preclude judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
Absent a demonstration of the developer’s intent to the contrary, Santurri indicated, he had relied on case law dealing with conveyance of title for lots abutting or adjacent to alleyways in subdivision plats, in which conveyance of title to the center line of the alleyway accompanies that of the abutting lot.
His ruling was that the original SeaHighland developer had therefore conveyed fee simple title to the eastern 10 feet of the breezeway adjacent to the Israels’ lot along with fee simple title to the lot itself.
However, Santurri emphasized, “This Court’s ruling does not have any impact, determination of adjudication on the rights of unnamed parties.”
“The Court makes no determination as to the use or scope of any such restriction, easement, common law dedication or other incorporeal right of use,” he concluded.
By DOTTY NIST