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Thornock v. Esterholdt

Supreme Court of Wyoming

June 27, 2016

JASON JOHN THORNOCK and TRACY THORNOCK, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
ERICK W. ESTERHOLDT, as Trustee of the Erick W. Esterholdt Revocable Trust Dated August 6, 2009; and JEANNE M. ESTERHOLDT, as Trustee of the Jeanne M. Esterholdt Revocable Trust dated August 6, 2009; and JOHN A. REED, III, and CAROLYN B. REED; and UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, a Delaware Corporation; and PACIFICORP, an Oregon Company; and RICHARD DAYTON; and ROBERTS RANCH; and REED LAND & CATTLE CO., LLP; and NK COOK RANCH, LLC; and FREDERIC C. REED as Trustee of the Frederic C. Reed Revocable Trust, Appellees (Defendants).

         Appeal from the District Court of Lincoln County The Honorable Joseph B. Bluemel, Judge

          Representing Appellants: David M. Clark of Greear Clark King, P.C., Worland, WY.

          Representing Appellees Erick W. and Jeanne M. Esterholdt, John A. and Carolyn B. Reed, III, Frederic C. Reed and Reed Land & Cattle Co., LLP: Sharon M. Rose of The Rose Law Firm, PC, Evanston, WY.

         Representing Appellees Union Pacific Railroad Company, Pacificorp, Richard Dayton, Roberts Ranch and NK Cook Ranch, LLC: No appearance.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          HILL, Justice

         [¶1] Jason and Tracy Thornock filed a complaint alleging their Lincoln County property is landlocked and requesting establishment of a private road, naming as defendants those neighboring landowners whose property might be affected by the road. Following a bench trial, the district court ruled that Thornocks' property is not landlocked, and on that basis, the court denied the request to establish a private road. We affirm.

         ISSUES

         [¶2] Thornocks present two issues on appeal, and they state those issues as:

A. Whether the Poison Creek Road, which is accessible only to Thornocks and their invitees, is a public road for purposes of W.S. § 24-9-101, et seq.
B. Whether the construction of a road across a natural barrier connecting two parcels of land owned by Thornocks would be unreasonably costly, given the evidence presented with respect to the costs and feasibility of construction and expected economic benefit to the parcel to be accessed.

         [¶3] The Appellee landowners state the issues similarly and add the following additional issue:

Whether a private road may be established to remedy access difficulties related to barriers within the applicant's own land.

         FACTS

         [¶4] In January 2008, Jason and Tracy Thornock purchased the Thornock Ranch from Jason Thornock's parents for $850, 000.00. The ranch is located in Lincoln County, Wyoming, west and northwest of the town of Cokeville, and consists of 2, 665.49 acres of fee land, as well as federal and state grazing leases for which the fee land is the base property. A property appraisal done in 2007 just prior to Thornocks' purchase of the ranch valued the ranch at $2, 100, 000.00 and noted that access to the property "is considered to be good."

         [¶5] Thornocks' fee land generally consists of two larger parcels connected by a narrow strip of land. The northern parcel is roughly 1, 700 acres in size and the southern parcel is somewhat smaller. The strip of fee land that connects the two parcels is a little under one mile long and two hundred feet wide and connects the two parcels east of the centerline of each parcel. The strip of land is bordered on the east by the Bear River and on the west by federal land.

         [¶6] An existing road known as Poison Creek Road connects Thornocks' southern parcel with County Road 207. Poison Creek Road begins at County Road 207 and crosses two pieces of private property before entering Thornocks' southern parcel. Thornocks have easements on each of those properties, which allow them to use Poison Creek Road to cross the properties for access to their southern parcel. Poison Creek Road crosses Thornocks' southern parcel heading in a northerly direction. It then exits Thornocks' southern parcel and crosses first about one-half mile of state land and then about one mile of federal land before connecting with Thornocks' northern parcel.

         [¶7] Through their attorney, Thornocks contacted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) concerning any restrictions on the use of Poison Creek Road where it crosses federal lands. The BLM advised Thornocks' attorney: "As you already know, landowners do have rights of ingress/egress. For any type of maintenance on the road a formal right-of-way application for a right-of-way across public lands would be required." The BLM further advised that it considered Poison Creek Road where it crosses federal lands to be open to the public for recreational use but any commercial use would require an appropriate right-of-way or permit. Thornocks were advised the restrictions and requirements for commercial use and maintenance of Poison Creek Road where it crosses state lands would be similar to the federal requirements.

         [¶8] In 2010, Thornocks installed a pivot irrigation system on their northern parcel, and in 2012, they installed a second pivot on the northern parcel. The installation of the pivots allowed Thornocks to grow hay on the northern parcel and increase grazing on that parcel, which in turn created a need to access the northern parcel with heavy equipment, including balers, swathers, and semitrailers. Contending that Poison Creek Road was not a public road and was not adequate for the type of access Thornocks required for the northern parcel after the pivot installations, and further contending that the terrain of the strip of Thornock land connecting the two parcels made construction of a road on that land impractical and unreasonably costly, Thornocks, on September 17, 2013, filed a complaint in district court seeking establishment of a private road.

         [¶9] On December 16, 2013, Thornocks filed an amended complaint naming as defendants all landowners whose property might be affected by the requested private road. On January 28, 2014, Defendants Erick W. Esterholdt and Jeanne M. Esterholdt moved for summary judgment and requested that the district court rule as a matter of law that a natural barrier occurring on a private road on applicant's own land cannot be the basis for a private road application. On February 18, 2014, the court held a hearing and denied the motion after finding that there were disputed issues of fact concerning the viability of a road on the strip of connecting land.

          [¶10] On May 5, 2014, pursuant to the parties' joint motion, the district court appointed an expert to evaluate the costs associated with building a road on the strip of Thornock land that connects their southern and northern parcels. On November 21, 2014, the expert issued the report, which estimated the cost of such a road at $973, 836.70. The elevated cost of the road was owing to the steepness and difficulty of the terrain and the proximity to the Bear River.

         [¶11] On June 22, 2015, a bench trial was held on the question of whether Thornocks' northern parcel was landlocked. On September 15, 2015, the district court issued its Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order on Landlock Hearing. The court concluded that Thornocks had failed to establish the need for a private road because they had not established that they were landlocked or that their access was substantially inconvenient, and it denied their complaint for establishment of a private road. In summarizing its ruling, the court explained:

The question of whether a private road is necessary begins with a determination of whether the parcel of land has an outlet or connection with a public road. W.S. § 24-9-101(a). In this case, Thornocks' northern parcel has a connection with a public road on two fronts. First, the characteristics of Poison Creek Road make it a public road. Second, access to a public road could be built across the natural barrier of the middle strip. The evidence did not demonstrate that such a project would be unreasonably costly. Because Thornocks' northern parcel has access, it is not landlocked.

         [¶12] Thornocks filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

         STANDARD ...


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