Dias v. State of Alaska, Dept. Of Transportation and Public Facilities

In 1969 Frank Cornelius conveyed an easement and right of way on land he owned in Palmer to the State of Alaska, Department of Highways. It used a standard form entitled “GRANT OF RIGHT OF WAY EASEMENT.” The standard language provided that the grantor conveyed “a perpetual, full and unrestricted easement and right of way.” It described a strip of land 150 feet wide, adjacent to the northwesterly side of Trunk Road for a distance of 2000 feet. A consideration of “no/100 dollars” was typed into the corresponding blank on the form. The typewritten description provided that “ the State will pay ten cents per cubic yard for gravel or other material removed from the above described area.” The form provided space to describe the purpose of the conveyance, which was left blank. In 1992 Cornelius conveyed a portion of the land subject to the easement and right of way to David and Merribelle Dias.

In 2007 the State contacted the Diases to negotiate its use of the easement and right of way and the acquisition of additional right of way for the Trunk Road Reconstruction Project. The Diases asserted that the State did not have an existing right of way and refused to convey any additional right of way. The Diases filed a Complaint for Quieting Title with the superior court, asking the court to quiet their interest in the property free of any interest of the State. The State counterclaimed asking the court to declare that it had a valid easement for highway right-of-way purposes. Following crossmotions for summary judgment the State’s motion was granted concluding the State had a valid and enforceable easement and right-of-way over the property.

In its discussion of the interpretation of conveyances to give effect to the intentions of the parties, the Supreme Court turns to the three-step analysis set forth in Estate of Smith v. Spinelli, 216 P.3d 524 (Alaska 2009). The first step is to look to the four corners of the document to see if it unambiguously presents the parties’ intent. The analysis ends here if the instrument, taken as a whole, is only open to one reasonable interpretation. If the instrument is ambiguous, the next step is a consideration of the facts and circumstances surrounding the conveyance. If the parties’ intent is still not  discernable after examining extrinsic evidence, then the court resorts to rules of construction.

The Diases argued that the instrument’s language unambiguously supports the use of the conveyance only for temporary material extraction. The State argued that the instrument unambiguously grants it a perpetual highway right of way. The Court finds that the language of the instrument supports the State’s contention. In particular, use of the terms “right of way easement” and “easement and right of way” are examined in relation to their definitions. The lack of consideration other than for gravel removal is not determinative and does not change the plain meaning of the instrument. Cornelius may  have been willing to limit his cash payment to materials removed deciding that an improved road would increase the value of his property. The superior court’s grant of summary judgment is affirmed.

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