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158005 - Jeffrey Maniaci v Thomas Diroff

JEFFREY S. MANIACI,                                                                                                   Philip Ellison



v          (Appeal from Ct of Appeals)

            (Gladwin – Evans, T.)






KENNETH G. SILER AND TONYA L.                                                              Alexander Bommarito




     ​    This cases arises from a property dispute between the parties over water access in a platted subdivision.  Defendants Thomas and Mandy Diroff owned waterfront lots on the Tittabawassee River at a point also known as Secord Lake.  Plaintiff Jeffrey Maniaci claimed a right to use a right-of-way named Vonda Lane to access the water, but defendants claimed to own a section of property between what they believed was the end of Vonda Lane and the water’s edge.  The parties refer to that property as “Parcel B.”  In 2015, the parties reached a settlement agreement and placed its terms on the record.

          The trial court entered a consent judgment pursuant to this settlement agreement.  The consent judgment granted plaintiff, as one of the lot owners, “an appurtenant non-recreational easement for ingress and egress access to and from the Tittabawassee River (a/k/a Secord Lake) across Parcel B to and from Vonda Lane.”  It further provided that “[t]he easement may also be used for the temporary mooring and launching of watercraft, including by boat trailer, but may not be used for non-temporary mooring, docks, and/or wharfs.”  Routine maintenance was defendants’ responsibility, but any party damaging the surface by use of the easement was “responsible for restoring the Easement to its pre-damaged state.” 

          The consent judgment did not end the parties’ dispute.  Plaintiff returned to court to request that the trial court declare that he could alter the grade and slope of the easement at the water’s edge to facilitate its use as a boat launch.  He argued that without such an improvement it would be essentially impossible to use the easement to launch a boat with a trailer.  Defendants countered that the slope of the easement remained the same as when the lawsuit was filed, that the terms of the settlement agreement referred to the “current status quo” of the “surface of the easement,” and that plaintiff was stuck with the status quo of the easement at the time of the settlement agreement.  Plaintiff acknowledged this point, but he claimed that defendants altered the slope just before he filed his complaint. 

          The parties disagreed about the intended scope of use of the easement.  Defendants argued that the water access point was intended to be used as a location simply to offload kayaks, canoes, and other small watercraft, and that a full-access boat ramp was available less than a half-mile away.  They asserted that the easement could be used for its intended purpose.  Defendants argued that everyone understood at the time of the settlement agreement that the location did not allow for launching boats from a trailer without significantly changing the grade.  Plaintiff insisted, however, that he had negotiated a settlement to have a site to use a boat trailer.  He relied on Blackhawk Dev Corp v Village of Dexter, 473 Mich 33, 41-42 (2005), a Michigan Supreme Court decision holding that an easement holder may improve the easement if reasonably necessary for the proper enjoyment of the easement and if it does not unreasonably burden the property that is subject to the easement. 

          The trial court denied plaintiff’s request to alter the slope of the easement.  The court observed that, although the consent judgment made reference to a trailer, it did not expressly provide for backing up a boat trailer to the water’s edge.  The court further recognized that “no one with a lick of sense would try to back a trailer with a boat on it down to the water’s edge there because you would sink into the sand.”  The court disagreed with plaintiff’s argument that the easement conveyed with it a right to regrade or reslope the access point “any more than it conveys with it a right to blacktop or pave that area of the land adjacent to the river.”  The court concluded that plaintiff’s proposed improvement was not reasonably necessary to the use of the easement.

          Plaintiff filed an application for leave to appeal in the Court of Appeals, which was denied for lack of merit in the grounds presented.  Plaintiff applied for leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for consideration as on leave granted.  (Meanwhile, defendants had sold their property to Kenneth and Tonya Siler, whose trust was added as a party.)  On remand, the Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion affirming the trial court’s decision to deny plaintiff permission to regrade the slope of the easement.  The Supreme Court has ordered oral argument on plaintiff’s application for leave to appeal to address whether plaintiff’s proposed alterations to Parcel B fall within the scope of the easement created by the 2015 consent judgment.