JASON JOHN THORNOCK and TRACY THORNOCK, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
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).
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.
Appellees Union Pacific Railroad Company, Pacificorp, Richard
Dayton, Roberts Ranch and NK Cook Ranch, LLC: No appearance.
BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.
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.
Thornocks present two issues on appeal, and they state those
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Thornocks filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.