Appellate Court Upholds Adverse Possession Claim of Lake Bottom
September 23, 2019
In July, the Appellate Division, Third Department issued a decision that dealt with lake bottoms and adverse possession. In LS Marina, LLC v ACME of Saranac, LLC, the appellate court found in favor of the marina operator and granted it summary judgment on its adverse possession claim. Here are the facts and analysis that led to that decision.
In 2014, LS Marina purchased the only publicly accessible marina on Lower Saranac Lake. The marina has been in continual use since 1924. Over the ensuing years, the marina’s business expanded as did its footprint. Between 1924 and the early 1970s, the marina owner purchased several additional parcels that were adjacent to its original site and built docks and covered boat slips. In the early 1970s, that owner installed swing moorings in the bay in front of the marina, which moorings have been used each boating season since then.
At the time of LS Marina’s 2014 purchase, the marina encompassed 17 acres. LS Marina believed its purchase included 6 rental cabins, a showroom, garage, two residential homes, the covered boats slips, boat docks, moorings and the underwater property rights. However, during the pendency of its applications to expand the marina, submitted to the Town of Harrietstown Planning Board, the Town Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), LS Marina discovered that title to the underwater lake bottom under its mooring field and 154-foot floating dock was held by the estate of Donald Moreau. In 2016, LS Marina contacted the Moreau estate representative about that underwater land.
In January 2017, ACME of Saranac, LLC (ACME) was formed by persons opposed to the expansion. One week later, ACME purchased the lake bottom from the Moreau estate for $50,000.00 via a quick claim deed. The APA informed LS Marina that a court would need to decide who held title to the lake bottom before it would continue processing the expansion application.
In June 2017, LS Marina sued, seeking a declaratory judgment that it possessed title to the underwater land. Shortly after ACME filed its answer to the complaint, LS Marina submitted a motion for summary judgment that was opposed by ACME. The trial court ruled that there were questions of fact about (1) whether LS Marina’s adverse possession claim was hostile and under claim of right; (2) whether it was actual, (3) whether it was open and notorious, (4) whether it was exclusive, and (5) whether it was continuous for the requisite time period.
The Appellate Division reversed and determined that LS Marina had made out a prima facie case of adverse possession. As to the first factor, LS Marina submitted affidavits of its predecessors-in-interest that showed the moorings were installed between the 1970s and 2005. Six moorings were installed in the early 1970s and their locations were selected to create the outer boundary perimeter of the mooring field. By 2005, a total of 20 active moorings had been installed and 16 or 17 were located in the disputed area. The moorings were rented out each boating season (April to October) and their use and access was limited to those who paid the rental fee. The boundary of the claimed area was readily discernable and visible by the mooring balls attached to each mooring anchor. The presence of moored boats made the boundary even made apparent. The affidavits also noted that the predecessor owner had never asked for or received permission to install the moorings because he believed he owned that lake bottom. Also, the submitted affidavit noted that between the 1970s and 2015, no one challenged that ownership interest. The appellate court found this use to be consistent with what owners would use such property for and was sufficiently open and notorious and continuous to put the record owner on notice of an adverse possession claim.
The appellate court rejected ACME’s claim that it raised any triable issue of fact. The Court noted that the seasonal nature of the marina business does not preclude a finding of adverse possession. The Court also found that the installation, seasonal use and maintenance of the mooring area was not sporadic. Rather, these activities persisted each and every boating season. Further, ACME’s assertion that a public right-of-way to traverse the water above the disputed lake bottom area defeated the adverse possession claim was rejected by the Court, which noted that the use of the moorings and floating dock was for the exclusive use of boaters paying the rental fee to the marina owner.
The Court also examined whether LS Marina’s attempt to purchase title to the lake bottom from the Moreau estate in 2016 defeated its adverse possession claim and determined it did not. The appellate court noted that the evidence established that title to the disputed area had passed to LS Marina’s predecessor-in-interest by adverse possession in the 1980s. Therefore, the attempted transaction in 2016 was not relevant, according to the Court.
Since the adverse possession was not based upon a written instrument, the appellate court remanded the matter back to the trial court to determine the specific description of the adversely possessed land.