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Friday, June 2, 2023
June 2, 2023

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Supreme court sides with couple in property dispute

Skamania County residents learned house was on neighbor's property 8 years after it was built

The Columbian

It was shocking news, when, in 2004, Ford and Christina Huntington learned the dream home they’d built in eastern Skamania County in 1996 was — oops — actually on their neighbor’s property.

Their neighbor, Noel Proctor, sued the Huntingtons to get them off his property (and to take their house with them.)

A property dispute that pitted neighbor versus neighbor also divided the state’s high court.

On Thursday, a 5-4 Washington Supreme Court sided with the Huntingtons. In doing so, the court upheld the opinions of a Skamania County judge and the Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial judge’s solution of making Proctor sell an acre of his land to the Huntingtons.

Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote in the majority opinion that the court was recognizing “the evolution of property law in Washington away from rigid adherence to an injunction rule and toward a more reasoned, flexible approach.”

In the dissent, Justice Richard Sanders wrote the decision “severely erodes the concept of private property rights,” and wonders “what other wrecking ball can the majority find to smash through the barriers (Arnold v. Melani, a 1968 case) established to protect private property rights in Washington?”

Brad Andersen, the Huntington’s Vancouver attorney, said the Huntingtons did not want to comment publicly but said they were “thrilled to death.”

Andersen said Ford Huntington, 44, owns a windsurfing shop in Hood River, Ore.

“They’ve been on pins and needles,” Andersen said.

Emmelyn Hart-Biberfeld, a Tukwila attorney who argued Proctor’s case before the Supreme Court, said Thursday she may file a motion for reconsideration, in which a losing party argues to the court why it made a bad ruling.

“Obviously we are disappointed,” Hart-Biberfeld said. “Justice Sanders hit it spot on. (The case) is going to lead to a muddying of the waters when it comes to property disputes.”

It’s no longer just about two Skamania County neighbors, she said.

“This decision will impact landowners across the state.”

Proctor, 55, a commercial airline pilot, could not be reached for comment.

The dispute dates to 2004, when Proctor, concerned that another neighbor was encroaching on his property, hired a surveyor who discovered that the Huntington’s home, well and garage were all on Proctor’s property.

A decade earlier, a landowner had subdivided his property in unincorporated Skamania County, selling 30 acres to Proctor and 27 acres to the Huntingtons.

The seller showed the buyers “the general property lines of the two parcels,” according to the court opinion.

For two summers, the Huntingtons camped on different portions of their property, which is about two miles west of Northwestern Lake.

They finally determined the best site for their home, Andersen said.

Before they started building in 1996, Ford Huntington asked a surveyor, who had been marking property lines to regulate logging activities north of Proctor’s and Huntington’s properties, to confirm the northwest corner of Huntington’s property. The surveyor pointed to a pin, which was actually 400 feet farther west than the actual boundary.

The Huntingtons checked with Proctor, and he did not object, according to the court opinion.

The Huntingtons built their house and lived in it for eight years before they were told that it was actually on Proctor’s property.

After the neighbors couldn’t work it out amongst themselves, Proctor filed suit in Skamania County Superior Court in 2005.

The Huntingtons filed a counterclaim, arguing they had adverse possession of the land.

The adverse possession argument didn’t fly during a three-day trial in 2006, Andersen said. He tried arguing that the Huntingtons had been using the property for 10 years, the minimum needed to show adverse possession. Judge E. Thompson Reynolds counted the eight years the Huntingtons had lived in their home, but wouldn’t count two summers spent camping on the property.

Reynolds did rule that the Huntingtons had acted in good faith, and that requiring them to move their home “would be oppressive … and inequitable,” according to the Supreme Court ruling.

A construction expert testified that it would cost the Huntingtons $300,000 to move their home.

Another witness testified that a fair market value for one acre of Proctor’s land would be $25,000.

Hart-Biberfeld said Reynolds’ order for Proctor to sell the acre to the Huntingtons for $25,000 has been on hold while the case was on appeal. After the Supreme Court issues a final order, which will depend on whether Hart-Biberfeld files a motion for reconsideration, a survey will be done before the Huntingtons buy the acre, she said.

In the minority opinion, Justice Sanders didn’t pooh-pooh that one acre.

“The acreage in that area — both that of Proctors and the Huntingtons — is heavily forested, hilly and contains some marshland,” Sanders wrote. “There are a limited number of areas on which are flat enough to reasonably build a house. Yes, Proctor was able to build his home on a portion of his remaining 29 acres. However, the Huntington’s one-acre encroachment prevented him from building anything on the elevated lookout upon which the Huntington’s home is located. It also puts a real limitation on the future use of his property — whether he ultimately decided to build on that elevated patch of land, or he chose instead to use it for hiking, camping, bird-watching, hunting or just quiet meditation.”

Countered Justice Stephens: “Nothing in our holding today undermines fundamental property rights: It remains true that a landowner may generally obtain an injunction to eject trespassers. Proctor does not forfeit the right to his land, nor do the Huntingtons get something for nothing.”

Justices Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Tom Chambers joined Stephens in the majority.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Gerry Alexander and Jim Johnson joined Sanders in the minority.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.