The Estate of Selma Smith, et. al. v. Charles Spinelli et. al., 216 P.3d 524 (September 18,2009)

This dispute centers around a 3.38 acre parcel of coastal land in the Turnagain area of Anchorage. Prior to the 1964 earthquake, it consisted of a steep, eroding bluff and tidal mudflats. The earthquake collapsed the bluff spreading it out over the mud flats and transforming the once unusable parcel into gently sloping, potentially developable coastal property. Appellants are heirs of the children of Rasmus Simonson, whose 147 acre 1920s homestead encompassed the disputed parcel and the heirs of his daughter Selma Smith, who subdivided and sold the homestead in the 1940s and 50s. Appellees are the current owners of eight lots in the subdivsion that directly abut the disputed parcel.

The plat of the property depicts the norther boundary of the appellees’ eight lots with a solid line drawn at what before the 1964 earthquake was the upper edge of a steep, eroding 50-70 foot bluff with tidal mudflats below. The plat thus left unplatted and undemarcated the largely unusable parcel of bluff and mudflats that was located between the subdivision boundary and the mean high tide line. Evidence at trial showed that a plat containing such a deficiency could not be recorded under modem standards. Neither the heirs or the lot owners paid property taxes on the parcel or attempted to build on it or sell it. No Simonson heir took any action to suggest that they owned the parcel, and several later testified that they never had reason to believe they had any interest in the parcel until the present controversy arose. The lot owners sought to quiet title to the disputed parcel in them, arguing that it should be considered part of their lots, which they purchased with the understanding that they were buying oceanfront property.

Following a bench trial, the Superior Court found that the plat was ambiguous as to whether Smith intended to convey the disputed parcel along with Lots 1-8 and that the surrounding circumstances established that Smith did in fact intend to convey the disputed parcel rather than retain it. The heirs challenged on appeal the trial court finding that the plat, which is incorporated into the deed, is ambiguous. They pointed out that the lot descriptions contained defined boundaries and square footage which did not include the disputed parcel. They also challenged the trial court’s factual determination that Smith intended to convey the disputed parcel along with Lots 1-8 when she subdivided the Simonson homestead.

Whether a deed is ambiguous is a question of law which the Supreme Court reviews de novo. The primary issue is the intent of the parties. The Court utilizes a three step approach in interpreting a deed. First, is to look to the four corners of the document to see if it unambiguously presents the parties intent, and, if so, it is enforced and no further analysis is necessary. Second, if the deed is ambiguous, the facts and circumstances surrounding the transaction are examined to determine the parties intent. Third, if the parties intent cannot be determined, the court resorts to rules of construction. Rules of construction are used only when it is impossible to determine the parties’ intent.

The Supreme Court affirms the trial court’s determination that the failure of the plat to demarcate and reserve the disputed parcel or specify the exact location of the mean high tide line created ambiguity regarding Lots 1-8 despite their seemingly well-defined boundaries. The Court then reviews the trial court’s determination that it was Smith’s intention to convey the disputed parcel as part of the lots and determines that it meets the clearly erroneous standard used to review factual determinations regarding intent. Since intent has been determined, rules of construction are not applied nor is the question reached as to whether the Earthslide Relief Act is applicable.

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