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Williams v. Taylor

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 11, 2018

DUANE WILLIAMS,
v.
HENRY L. TAYLOR; HENRY L. TAYLOR, LLC; MT. VALLEY FARMS & LUMBER PRODUCTS, INC.; NAWAKWA, LLC; ELMER A. SHOCKEY, JR.; AND CONSTANCE S. ALERING, APPEAL OF: HENRY L. TAYLOR; HENRY L. TAYLOR, LLC; MT. VALLEY FARMS & LUMBER PRODUCTS, INC.; AND NAWAKWA, LLC,

         Appeal from the Judgment entered on September 6, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County, Civil Division at No(s): 2013-SU-0000290.

          BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., KUNSELMAN, J., and FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

          OPINION

          KUNSELMAN, J.

         Henry L. Taylor's three logging companies[1] appeal from the judgment following a non-jury trial, in which Duane Williams sought to prohibit the Taylor Companies from driving over a private lane on his property. The trial judge found that the Taylor Companies may not, as a matter of law, obtain a prescriptive easement under Pennsylvania's Unenclosed Woodlands Act of 1850.[2] We affirm.

         Approximately 8.1 billion trees comprise Pennsylvania[3] - a/k/a "Penn's woods." Here, we must consider the legal status of the trees growing on Mr. Williams' farm, where a private dirt driveway, Glatfelter Lane, passes through a wooded area of his property. Mr. Williams sought to keep the Taylor Companies out of his woods; the Taylor Companies claimed a right of way over the lane. The dispute in this matter concerns whether the Taylor Companies are entitled to an easement by prescription through the trees on Mr. Williams' property. As discussed more fully below, the Taylor Companies may not acquire an easement by prescription if the lane crosses through "unenclosed woodlands" as defined by law.

         As seen below in Mr. Williams' Exhibit #18, Glatfelter Lane runs from a paved, public road on the eastern side of the farm; past a few buildings; along the northern edge of a cornfield; and then into the trees.

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         The lane initially parallels the arrow drawn on the photograph at the northern edge of the easternmost cornfield, from the public road to the "X" in the trees. It is the line running from the "X, " through the trees, over the line drawn to indicate a "Drainage Ditch, " until reaching a tiny clearing above the second field at the northwest corner of Mr. Williams' farm. The lane then re-enters the woods before leaving Mr. Williams' land and proceeds up the mountain on other properties where the Taylor Companies desire to log timber.

         Next to Glatfelter Lane runs a tiny stream (not visible in the photograph) that, according to Mark Webb, the forestry expert who testified at trial, renders the trees and shrubs in question a "forested grand riparian buffer . . . to protect the integrity of the stream." N.T. 6/26/17 at 98. This conservation land use, combined with Mr. Webb's personal observations of the plant life and his preparation of several, multi-year, forest-management plans for Mr. Williams, lead him to conclude that, in his professional opinion, "most of the Glatfelter Lane passes through unenclosed woodlands." Id. at 94.

         The Taylor Companies disagreed with that conclusion. Specifically, Mr. Taylor testified that his unique perspective as a lumberjack informed his view of the trees adjacent to and surrounding the lane. He testified, because "I am a sawmill owner and the timber buyer and a lumber grade salesman, I look at trees a little bit differently than others and as I drove up that lane, there was not a single tree that jumped out to me and said come cut me . . . None of the trees were of merchantable value . . ." Id. at 110. To him, a "woodland" is limited only to a wooded area that contains commercially suitable timber.

         The court conducted a bench trial in this quiet title action. On appeal, our appellate role is limited to determining:

whether the findings of the trial court are supported by competent evidence and whether the trial court committed error in any application of the law. The findings of fact of the trial judge must be given the same weight and effect on appeal as the verdict of a jury. We consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the verdict winner. We will reverse the trial court only if its findings of fact are not supported by competent evidence in the record or if its findings are premised on an error of law. However, where the issue concerns a question of law, our scope of review is plenary.
The trial court's conclusions of law on appeal originating from a non-jury trial are not binding on an appellate court because it is the appellate court's duty to determine if the trial court correctly applied the law to the facts of the case.

Stephan v. Waldron Electric Heating & Cooling LLC, 100 A.3d 660, 664-665 (Pa. Super. 2014) (citation omitted). Additionally, the trial judge, as finder of fact, is free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence, and this Court will not disturb his credibility determinations. Voracek v. Crown Castle USA Inc., 907 A.2d 1105, 1108 (Pa. Super. 2006).

         The Taylor Companies allege three errors on appeal. First, they assert that the trial judge "erred by applying a legally insufficient definition of 'woodland' and by disregarding relevant facts concerning the character of the land." Taylor Companies' Brief at 7. Second, they argue that the trial court needed to reach an "independent factual finding that the land was 'unenclosed.'" Id. And, third, the ...


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