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Robert and Joyce Soska v. Robert W. and Kelly Bishop

March 18, 2011

ROBERT AND JOYCE SOSKA, APPELLANTS
v.
ROBERT W. AND KELLY BISHOP



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Judge

Submitted: November 5, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE COHN JUBELIRER

Robert and Joyce Soska (the Soskas) appeal the March 8, 2010, Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County (trial court) that dismissed the Soskas' exceptions to the Report of the appointed Board of Viewers (Board). Pursuant to the act commonly known as the Private Road Act (Act),*fn1 the Board denied the Soskas' request that a private road be opened over the land of their neighbors, Robert W. and Kelly Bishop (the Bishops). The Soskas assert that the Board erred and/or abused its discretion by refusing to open a private road over the Bishops' property and showing bias and ill will against them.

The Soskas own 1.2 acres in Exeter Township, Luzerne County (the Property), which they acquired by two deeds. (Stipulations III and IV, Report at 4; Deed dated October 28, 1988, Soska Ex.-2, and Deed dated April 28, 1989, Soska Ex.-1, Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 173a-78a.) The Soskas and the Bishops stipulated that the Property abuts a public county road, Sutton Creek Road, and that there currently is a driveway on the Property that the Soskas use to access Sutton Creek Road from their residence. (Stipulation III, Report at 4.) The Bishops own approximately forty- three acres also in Exeter Township; on that property is a private road, Barn Road, which provides access from the Bishops' property to State Road 1031, more commonly referred to as Mt. Zion Road. (Stipulation V, Report at 4.) Barn Road runs 435.5 feet over the Bishops' property between Mt. Zion Road and the east-west boundary between the Bishops' property and the Property. (Stipulations VI and VIII, Report at 5.)

The Soskas filed a Petition for the Appointment of a Board of Viewers to Open a Private Road (Petition), requesting the appointment of a Board to evaluate opening a "right-of-way across the land of [the Bishops] over the existing roadway [Barn Road] or another roadway across [the Bishops'] lands." (Petition ¶ 7, Supplemental Reproduced Record (S.R.R.) at 2b.) The Soskas asserted that there was a "clear necessity" for the right-of-way to provide them with "reasonable access to and from [Mt. Zion Road]." (Petition ¶ 7, S.R.R. at 2b.) The Soskas further claimed that they "have no reasonable or practical access from their land to Sutton Creek Road because of the terrain and elevation of their driveway extending from their residence to Sutton Creek Road." (Stipulation VII, Report at 5; see also Petition ¶ 5, S.R.R. at 2b.) The trial court appointed the Board, which, after providing timely notice, met with the parties and their counsel in August 2005. Although the Board accepted brief statements from counsel, it did not take testimony or accept evidence. Soska v. Bishop, No. 711 C.D. 2006 (Pa. Cmwlth. May 3, 2007), slip op. at 2 (Soska I). Thereafter, the Board performed an in-person inspection of the properties in question, which included viewing and walking over the Property, the Property's present access to Sutton Creek Road, and Barn Road. Id., slip op. at 4. After its site view, the Board determined that the Soskas had access, ingress and egress, to Sutton Creek Road from the Property and that the opening of a private road was not necessary. Id. Therefore, the Board recommended that the trial court dismiss the Petition with prejudice. Id. The Soskas filed exceptions with the trial court, which were denied, and filed an appeal with this Court claiming, inter alia, that the Board erred when it failed to conduct a formal hearing in August 2005 or take any evidence or testimony regarding the reasonableness of their request. Id. This Court agreed, vacated the Board's decision and remanded the matter for the Board to hold a proper hearing, at which the parties could present evidence and testimony in support of their positions. Id., slip op. at 8-9.

On remand, the Board held a hearing on April 25, 2008, during which the parties presented evidence. Noting that it was not bound by the formal Rules of Evidence, the Board afforded the parties wide latitude with regard to their evidentiary offerings. *fn2 Mr. Soska testified that, when they first purchased the Property, they used Barn Road to access Mt. Zion Road, believing that they had an easement to do so. Mr. Soska agreed that, when he first purchased the Property in 1988, he asked Mr. Bishop to sign an agreement allowing the Soskas to use Barn Road, and Mr. Bishop would not sign the agreement. The Soskas continued to use Barn Road until the Bishops blocked the road approximately three years after the Soskas began constructing their home in 1989. It was at that time, according to Mr. Soska, that his wife had the current driveway "cut" to allow access from the Soskas' residence to Sutton Creek Road. Mr. Soska indicated that he was away from home at that time and that his wife hired a neighbor to bulldoze the driveway to provide the Soskas access to Sutton Creek Road. Mr. Soska testified that he must use a four-wheel-drive pickup truck to get from his residence to Sutton Creek Road via the existing driveway. He explained that coal trucks and UPS will not deliver to the residence and that, at one time, an ambulance would not drive up the driveway. According to Mr. Soska it is extremely difficult to use the driveway in the wintertime, when he has to put chains on his four-wheel-drive truck, and that when there are heavy rains he must fill in dirt that has been washed away by the rain. Mr. Soska acknowledged that he has done nothing to improve the driveway, believing that it would be a waste of money, and that he has not investigated the cost to rehabilitate or improve the driveway since it was cut.

The Soskas also presented the testimony of Glenn Johnson, a professional land surveyor, and Thomas J. Reilly, a registered engineer with expertise in road work. Mr. Johnson testified that he surveyed and prepared a survey map of the Property. Mr. Johnson confirmed that Barn Road was located on the Bishops' property and indicated that he did not recall ever seeing the Soskas drive on their driveway. The Board admitted Mr. Johnson's survey map of the Property into evidence, but noted that the map incorrectly signified that the Soskas had the right to use Barn Road. Mr. Reilly stated that he was familiar with the Property, had driven up the driveway from Sutton Creek Road in his four-wheel-drive SUV, had performed studies of the driveway to determine its slope and curvature, and drafted a report based on those studies. Mr. Reilly indicated, both in his testimony and his report, that the driveway, in its present form, was constructed sometime after 1992. Mr. Reilly opined that the grades of the driveway, ranging from 2% to 30%, did not conform to the Exeter Township Subdivision Ordinance and Land Development Ordinance (Ordinance), which cannot exceed 10%. In Mr. Reilly's opinion, the driveway did not comply with "generally-accepted engineering standards" as to grades or curves. (N.T. at 48, R.R. at 50a.) Mr. Reilly took photographs of the driveway and of Barn Road, which were admitted into evidence.

The Soskas attempted to introduce the testimony of Alan J. Rosen, a real estate appraisal expert, who was going to testify regarding the cost of opening Barn Road for the Soskas' use. The Bishops objected to Mr. Rosen's testimony on the grounds that it went to the damages that would be incurred in the taking of the Bishops' property for an easement. The Bishops asserted that, because the procedures for opening a private road under the Act are bifurcated, in that the Board must first determine whether there is a necessity for the opening of a private road and the location of the road before damages can be determined, Mr. Rosen's testimony was not relevant, helpful, or allowable during the "necessity" stage of the proceedings. The Board agreed, sustained the Bishops' objection, and precluded Mr. Rosen from testifying.

Mr. Bishop testified that he and his wife own Barn Road and explained that he allowed the Soskas to use Barn Road while they were constructing their residence because heavy equipment and lumber trucks would be travelling from Mt. Zion Road to the Soska residence. According to Mr. Bishop, he allowed the Soskas to use Barn Road for about three years and then he blocked the road, noting that the Soskas continued to use Barn Road even after construction on their residence was completed. Mr. Bishop testified that, after he blocked Barn Road on several occasions, the Soskas had a neighbor "cut" the current driveway from the Soskas' residence to Sutton Creek Road. Mr. Bishop indicated that he has observed as many as four different vehicles using the driveway and stated that many homes in Exeter Township are built high above road level, which necessarily results in some steep driveways between residences and public roads.

The Bishops also offered the testimony of George M. Albert, a licensed civil engineer, who visited the Property and drafted a "schematic" describing a way in which the Soskas could rehabilitate or reconstruct their driveway. Mr. Albert recalled the elevation of the Property from Sutton Creek Road, indicating that the grade change between the residence and Sutton Creek Road was between eighty and ninety feet and that, gauging a straight line slope, the grade of the Property was approximately 40%. Mr. Albert opined that the driveway could be lengthened to achieve a flatter grade and that the cost for reconstructing or rehabilitating the driveway would be around $24,000. Mr. Albert, who works for the firm that serves as Exeter Township's engineer, reviewed Mr. Reilly's report and indicated that, when the Soskas purchased the Property, there was no ordinance in effect that would have prohibited them from rehabilitating their present driveway and that the acceptable engineering standards Mr. Reilly was relying on were for "roadway design," not the construction of private driveways. (N.T. at 119-20, R.R. at 121a-22a.) Mr. Albert stated that the Soskas have access to Sutton Creek Road from their residence via the driveway, but he acknowledged that such access was not particularly safe and that the Soskas had to be careful because of the contour and elevation of the driveway. He also indicated, however, that the access could be made "reasonably passable and practicable" by rehabilitating the driveway. (N.T. at 129-33, R.R. at 131a-35a.) On cross-examination, Mr. Albert acknowledged that his schematic was "based on the principle of extending rise over run," (N.T. at 126-27, R.R. at 128a-29a), that he had an approximation of the radii involved in the driveway schematic, but did not actually compute the radius of any of the turns or the actual grades of the schematic on the exhibit. Further, he indicated that he calculated the $24,000 cost based on the estimated lineal footage of the proposed driveway and the cost of preparing the Property, surfacing the roadway, and purchasing guide rails. (N.T. at 127-28, R.R. at 129a-30a.)

Having reviewed this testimony, the Board determined that it was appropriate for it not to consider Mr. Reilly's testimony regarding when the Soskas' driveway was "cut," that the driveway constructed at that time did not conform with the present standards regarding curves and grades set forth in the Ordinance, and that the driveway was not constructed according to "generally-accepted engineering standards" because these things were clearly observable from the Board's walk-over of the Property. (Report at 13.) The Board considered Mr. Reilly's testimony, for the most part, "not appropriate" for this case because there is no subdivision plot plan for a development on the Property. (Report at 13-14.) The Board noted that Mr. Albert admitted that the Soskas had access from the Property to Sutton Creek Road, although he indicated that such access could be made more efficient for use at some cost. (Report at 14.) With regard to Mr. Johnson's survey map, the Board concluded that, while the map was useful to the Board, it could not replace the Board's actual onsite walk-over of the Property in 2005. (Report at 14.) The Board concluded that it was clear from the testimony that the Soskas have been using the driveway to access Sutton Creek Road since it was constructed in 1993, after they were prohibited from using Barn Road. (Report at 14.) The Board held that, although the Soskas may find using their driveway in its current condition burdensome and inconvenient, this is not the test required by the Act to allow for the opening of a private road. (Report at 14.) Moreover, the Board noted that the Soskas have done nothing on their own to improve or rehabilitate their driveway, instead choosing to engage in litigation with the Bishops in order to allow them to use Barn Road.*fn3 (Report at 15.)

Accordingly, based on its view of the Property and the refreshment of its recollection by the testimony and evidence submitted by the parties, the Board found that the opening of a private road in this matter was not "a strict necessity or necessary under all the facts and circumstances of this case." (Report at 15.) The Board further explained that reasonable ingress and egress has been and continued to be available from the Soskas' residence to Sutton Creek Road via the driveway and that, with relatively minor modification of the driveway and the reasonable expenditure of funds, this access would be made less burdensome and more convenient. (Report at 16.) Accordingly, the Board recommended denying the Petition and dismissing it with prejudice.

The trial court confirmed the Board's Report on February 23, 2009, and entered a Decree Nisi. The Soskas filed exceptions with the trial court, which the trial court dismissed on March 8, 2010. In its opinion supporting that order, the trial court issued an opinion in which the trial court noted that the Soskas have been using the driveway to access Sutton Creek Road since 1993 and that Mr. Albert testified that this driveway could be upgraded by minor modification and with reasonable expenditure of funds. (Trial Ct. Op. at 2.) The trial court concluded that, given that the Act is subject to strict interpretation, particularly the concept of "necessity," and the trial court's inability to substitute its judgment for the Board's, the Board did not abuse its discretion in ...


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