Friday, July 27, 2007

When Is A Waterfront Property Owner Entitled To Use All The Lake's Surface?

Orr v. Mortvedt, No. 04-1968 (Iowa July 20, 2007)

This case is of importance to people who have bought lakefront homes or property in which the lake is not naturally occurring. As city folks move out in the country and take up residence around former sandpits this question can assume great significance, especailly if they're feuding with their neighbors.

A number of people bought Hamilton County lakefront land from the Twedt family, the lake in question being a flooded quarry that was fed by springs and became a 30 acre lake. Each sale conveyed a portion of the lakebed and the land along the shore. Sevde bought 20 acres on the east, south and west side of the lake. Mortvedt bought a tract north and west of the lake, and Orr bought on the east side of the lake which included the strip between the land owned by Sevde and Mortvedt. Orr conveyed part of his tract to Cameron, including a part of the lakebed.

A boundary dispute arose between Orr and Mortvedt, Mortvedt arguing that his land ran to the water's edge on the west side of the lake, and Orr argued that a survey showed that he was the owner of the western lakeshore. Orr planted trees on what he said was his land.

A lawsuit resulted, with Orr, Sevde and Cameron on one side and Mortvedt on the other. Orr argued for a determination that the owners were entitled to use only that part of the lake overlying their land and that the several landowners had the right to drain the lake on their lands and mine the minerals. Mortvedt counterclaimed, seeking a determination that they could use the entire lake, to have the level restored to its prior level, that the plaintiffs could not drain the lake, and that the plaintiffs could not install a fence in the lake. Mortvedt also sought reformation of their deed to conform to the understanding of the parties to the 1996 conveyance. After losing at trial this appeal followed.

The Supreme Court dealt with the issue of reformation, affirming the trial court's ruling that evidence contrary to the written contract was inadmissible parol evidence and a violation of the statute of frauds.

In dealing with the Mortvedt's claims of a right of use to the surface waters, the Court held that the landlocked body of water that was the lake had never served as a highway of commerce and was thus not navigable water.

The issue of whether the Mortvedts had a right to access to all the surface of the lake, the Supreme Court addressed an issue of first impression and adopted the common law rule that one is entitled to exclusive use and enjoyment of that part of a non navigable lake that covers the lakebed that one owns.