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Hoyler v. State

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 7, 2019

H. Marshall Hoyler, Appellant,
The State of South Carolina, Merry Land Properties, LLC, Sherbert Living Trust, Supan Living Trust, Elizabeth R. Levin, Edward McCray Wise Revoc. Living Trust, Carol Ann DeVries Wise Revoc. Living Trust, Amelie Cromer, Philip Cromer, Robert Chiavello, Tocharoen Living Trust, Helen M. Olesak, Lesley Anne Glick a/k/a Lesley Ann Glick, Shirley G. Lackey, Patricia Banfield, Bertrand Cooper, Jr., NHP SH South Carolina I, LLC n/k/a CCP Bayview 7176 LLC, Oyster Cove Homeowners Ass., Shirley Anne Moyer, Barry D. Malphrus, Garry D. Malphrus, Donnie Malphrus, Rita Brown, Houston Family Partnership, Joan Taylor Trustee, Michael Bull, Nancy Bull, Marny H. VonHarten, Dianne M. Donaldson, Brian R. Evans, Stephen Durbin, Valerie Durbin, Phillip Marti, Jane Marti, Michael Woodworth, Georgiana M. Cooke, Daniel B. Walsh Janet E. Walsh, Defendants, Of which The State of South Carolina and Merry Land Properties, LLC are the Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2016-001277

          Heard March 4, 2019

          Appeal From Beaufort County Marvin H. Dukes, III, Master-in-Equity

          Jefferson D. Griffith, III, and Richard Lee Whitt, both of Austin & Rogers, P.A., of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Mary Duncan Shahid and Angelica M. Colwell, both of Nexsen Pruet, LLC, and Stephen Peterson Groves, Sr., of Butler Snow, LLP, all of Charleston, for Respondent Merry Land Properties, LLC.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Solicitor General Robert D. Cook, and Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., all of Columbia, for Respondent The State of South Carolina.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Appellant H. Marshall Hoyler challenges an order of the Master-in-Equity denying his request pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 48-39-220 (2008) to declare that Hoyler holds title to 95.27 acres of tidelands along the Beaufort River and abutting the Town of Port Royal.[1] Hoyler argues that this property is readily identifiable from the plat incorporated into the deed to his predecessor in title and, therefore, the master improperly considered extrinsic evidence. Hoyler also argues the master erred by (1) allowing adjacent property owners to intervene in the action; (2) concluding the adjacent property owners had standing; (3) keeping the record open to allow Respondent Merry Land Properties, LLC (Merry Land) to submit additional testimony; and (4) declining to hear post-trial motions in a timely manner. We affirm.[2]


         In 2006, Merry Land purchased two tracts of land in the Town of Port Royal for the purpose of constructing a mixed-use development, including condominiums, with deep water access to the Beaufort River. One of the tracts consists of eight acres with access to the Beaufort River via tidelands within which Hoyler claims ownership of 95.27 acres (the disputed marsh).[3] Merry Land paid $4.5 million for this tract. The other tract, for which Merry Land paid $1.5 million, consists of 10 acres and borders Johnny Morrall Circle and Ribaut Road. Prior to closing on the purchase of these tracts, Merry Land obtained state and federal permits authorizing construction of a community marina.

         After Merry Land closed on the purchase of these tracts, it refinanced the loan secured by the property. During the refinancing process, the appraiser employed by Merry Land's lender discovered a notation in the Beaufort County GIS System indicating a tax parcel in the marsh where Merry Land planned to launch the marina.[4]As a result, Merry Land sent a letter to Hoyler, a Rhode Island resident, offering to purchase this property. Rather than accepting the offer, Hoyler filed this action on November 8, 2007, against Respondent State of South Carolina to obtain a declaration that he owned the disputed marsh.

         In his complaint, Hoyler asserted the existence of an 1891 deed to his predecessor in title, J.M. Crofut, from former Governor Benjamin R. Tillman for 95.27 acres of marshland located on the Beaufort River. The complaint also asserted that the deed was accompanied by a plat depicting a tract "bounded on the South by lands of Moss, on the West by miscellaneous individuals, on the North by Seal Island Chemical Works[, ] and on the East by the Beaufort River." An heir of Crofut, Elizabeth Waterhouse, devised a share of her putative interest in the property to Hoyler in 1968, and in 1979, the remaining heirs conveyed their respective putative interests to Hoyler for $10.

         In its answer to the complaint, the State asserted that it held prima facie title to the disputed marsh in trust for the public and Hoyler lacked the power to exclude the public from the marsh. Merry Land filed a motion to intervene in this action as well as an "Answer and Counterclaim" asserting that Hoyler was barred from preventing construction of the planned marina by the doctrines of estoppel and laches. On February 22, 2008, the master, with the consent of counsel for all parties, executed an order granting Merry Land's motion to intervene.[5]

         The master conducted a hearing on January 31, 2011, in which he denied Hoyler's subsequent and contrarian motion to dismiss Merry Land from this action and ruled, sua sponte, that several additional owners of property adjacent to the disputed marsh would be joined as defendants.[6] In his written order, the master concluded the adjacent property owners were being joined pursuant to Rule 20(a), SCRCP, [7] because they could lose their right of access to the Beaufort River upon a declaration that Hoyler held title to the disputed marsh. Hoyler filed a motion for reconsideration and a Notice of Appeal. The motion for reconsideration remained unresolved until after this court dismissed the appeal as interlocutory and our supreme court denied certiorari. On remand, the master denied Hoyler's motion for reconsideration and granted a motion to intervene filed by Nancy Deering Carey. Hoyler appealed these rulings, and this court also dismissed the appeal as interlocutory.

         Subsequently, Hoyler served all of the adjoining property owners with notice of this action, and the master conducted a hearing on November 19, 2015. The master allowed the record to stay open for 45 days after the hearing to allow Merry Land to obtain the deposition testimony of a surveyor who had worked with Merry Land's civil engineering expert. After the master reviewed this deposition testimony, he sent an e-mail to counsel for the parties requesting a proposed order from counsel for Respondents. In response, Hoyler filed a motion challenging the findings in the master's e-mail pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCRCP. The master denied this motion in a Form 4 order.

         On May 27, 2016, the master issued a written order concluding that the conveyance to Crofut was a valid exercise of the State's authority under the law as it existed at the time of the conveyance but the property could not be accurately located and, therefore, Hoyler was not entitled to a declaration that he held title to the disputed marsh. On June 19, 2016, Hoyler filed a second Rule 59(e) motion in response to the written order, and the master denied this motion. This appeal followed.


         1. Did the master err by concluding Hoyler was not entitled to a declaration that he held title to 95.27 acres of marshland as against the State?

         2. Did the master err by allowing adjacent property owners to intervene in this action? 3. Did the master err by concluding the adjacent property owners had standing?

         4. Did the master abuse his discretion by keeping the record open to allow Merry Land to submit additional testimony?

         5. Did the master err by declining to hear post-trial motions in a timely manner?


         Declaratory Judgment

         "A suit for declaratory judgment is neither legal nor equitable, but is determined by the nature of the underlying issue." Query v. Burgess, 371 S.C. 407, 410, 639 S.E.2d 455, 456 (Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Felts v. Richland Cty., 303 S.C. 354, 356, 400 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1991)). "To make this determination [the appellate court] look[s] to the main purpose of the action as determined by the complaint." Id. (quoting Estate of Revis v. Revis, 326 S.C. 470, 476, 484 S.E.2d 112, 115 (Ct. App. 1997)). When the complaint's main purpose "concerns the determination of title to real property, it is an action at law." Id.

         "In an action at law, '[the appellate court] will affirm the master's factual findings if there is any evidence in the record [that] reasonably supports them.'" Id. (quoting Lowcountry Open Land Tr. v. State, 347 S.C. 96, 101-02, 552 S.E.2d 778, 781 (Ct. App. 2001)). Further, "[the appellate c]ourt reviews all questions of law de novo." Fesmire v. Digh, 385 S.C. 296, 302, 683 S.E.2d 803, 807 (Ct. App. 2009); see also Clardy v. Bodolosky, 383 S.C. 418, 425, 679 S.E.2d 527, 530 (Ct. App. 2009) ("Questions of law may be decided with no particular deference to the trial court." (quoting S.C. Dep't of Transp. v. M & T Enters. of Mt. Pleasant, LLC, 379 S.C. 645, 654, 667 S.E.2d 7, 12 (Ct. App. 2008))).

         Deed Interpretation

         "In construing a deed, 'the intention of the grantor must be ascertained and effectuated, unless that intention contravenes some well settled rule of law or public policy.'" Windham v. Riddle, 381 S.C. 192, 201, 672 S.E.2d 578, 582 (2009) (quoting Wayburn v. Smith, 270 S.C. 38, 41, 239 S.E.2d 890, 892 (1977)). "In determining the grantor's intent, the deed must be construed as a whole and effect given to every part if it can be done consistently with the law." Id. at 201, 672 S.E.2d at 583 (quoting Gardner v. Mozingo, 293 S.C. 23, 25, 358 S.E.2d 390, 391-92 (1987)). "The intention of the grantor must be found within the four corners of the deed." Id. (quoting Gardner, 293 S.C. at 25, 358 S.E.2d at 392).

         However, "[w]here a deed describes land as it is shown on a certain plat, such plat becomes part of the deed for the purpose of showing the boundaries, metes, courses[, ] and distances of the property conveyed." Hobonny Club, Inc. v. McEachern, 272 S.C. 392, 397, 252 S.E.2d 133, 136 (1979). "[B]oundaries govern acreage and inaccuracies relating to the area of a tract are generally immaterial." Brownlee v. Miller, 208 S.C. 252, 260, 37 S.E.2d 658, 661 (1946). Further, "[i]f this [c]ourt decides that the language in a deed is ambiguous, the determination of the grantor's intent then becomes a question of fact" and evidence may be admitted to show the intent of the parties. Santoro v. Schulthess, 384 S.C. 250, 272, 681 S.E.2d 897, 908 (Ct. App. 2009); see also S.C. Dep't of Nat. Res. v. Town of McClellanville, 345 S.C. 617, 623, 550 S.E.2d 299, 303 (2001) (applying rules of contract construction to a restrictive covenant in a deed); id. at 623, 302-03 ("A contract is ambiguous when the terms of the contract are reasonably susceptible of more than one interpretation. It is a question of law for the court whether the language of a contract is ambiguous. Once the court decides the language is ambiguous, evidence may be admitted to show the intent of the parties. The determination of the parties' intent is then a question of fact." (citations omitted)).

         Moreover, "[a] deed or grant by [the State] is construed strictly in favor of the State and general public and against the grantee." Query, 371 S.C. at 411, 639 S.E.2d at 456-57 (second alteration in original) (quoting State v. Hardee, 259 S.C. 535, 539, 193 S.E.2d 497, 499 (1972)); accord Estate of Tenney v. S.C. Dep't of Health & Envtl. Control, 393 S.C. 100, 106, 712 S.E.2d 395, 398 (2011) ("In areas subject to the public trust doctrine, presumption of State ownership 'may be overcome only by showing a specific grant from the sovereign[, ] which is strictly construed against the grantee.'" (quoting McQueen v. S.C. Coastal Council, 354 S.C. 142, 149 n.6, 580 S.E.2d 116, 119 n.6 (2003))); Grant v. State, 395 S.C. 225, 229, 717 S.E.2d 96, 98 (Ct. App. 2011).


         I. Determination of Title

         Hoyler argues that the 95.27 acres is readily identifiable from the plat incorporated into the deed to Crofut and, therefore, the master improperly considered extrinsic evidence. On the other hand, Merry Land contends the intent underlying the deed's incorporation of the plat was to show the boundaries, metes, courses, and distances of the property conveyed but the plat's information was insufficient to identify those features. Likewise, the State maintains the plat provided insufficient guidance. We agree with Merry Land and the State.

         We begin our analysis with the foundation on which the determination of property rights in tidelands rests, South Carolina's public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine provides that lands below the high water mark are presumptively owned by the State and held in trust for the benefit of the public, and it has been a vital part of the jurisprudence of South Carolina and many other states for centuries, even pre-dating the beginning of our republic.[8] The doctrine rightfully forbids the State from permitting activity substantially impairing the public interest in marine life, water quality, or public access.[9]

The underlying premise of the Public Trust Doctrine is that some things are considered too important to society to be owned by one person. Traditionally, these things have included natural resources such as air, water (including waterborne activities such as navigation and fishing), and land (including but not limited to seabed and riverbed soils). Under this Doctrine, everyone has the inalienable right to breathe clean air; to drink safe water; to fish and sail, and recreate upon the high seas, territorial seas and navigable waters; as well as to land on the seashores and riverbanks.

Sierra Club v. Kiawah Resort Assocs., 318 S.C. 119, 127-28, 456 S.E.2d 397, 402 (1995) (quoting Greg L. Spyridon and Sam A. LeBlanc, III, The Overriding Public Interest in Privately Owned Natural Resources: Fashioning a Cause of Action, 6 Tul. Envtl. L.J. 287, 291 (1993)). In more recent years, our supreme court captured the essence of the doctrine as it applies to tidelands: "Our State's tidelands are a precious public resource held in trust for the people of South Carolina."[10]

         It is through this lens that we examine the claim of a private individual to an ownership interest in tidelands, an interest that would allow him to exclude the public. Because the law, as a zealous guardian of the public interest, bestows presumptive ownership of tidelands on the State for the benefit of the public, any deed from the State purporting to convey tidelands to a private individual must be strictly construed against the grantee and in favor of the public.[11] In State v. Pacific Guano Company, our supreme court explained,

In all grants from the government to the subject, the terms of the grant are to be taken most strongly against the grantee, and in favor of the grantor, reversing the rule as between individuals, on the ground that the grant is supposed to be made at the solicitation of the grantee, and the form and terms of the particular instrument of grant proposed by him and submitted to the government for its allowance. But this rule applies a fortiori to a case where such grant by a government to individual proprietors is claimed to be not merely a conveyance of title to land[] but also a portion of that public domain [that] the government held in a fiduciary relation[] for general and public use.

22 S.C. 50, 86 (1884).

         For this reason, "the party asserting a transfer of title bears the burden of proving its own good title, "[12] and one claiming an interest in tidelands pursuant to section 48-39-220(A) must convince the court that the State intended to include the tidelands within the boundaries expressed in the deed.[13] Necessarily, the claimant must show that the language of the conveyance is specific enough to determine a reasonably precise location of its boundaries so that members of the public will not be excluded from property rightfully belonging to them.[14]

         In Query v. Burgess, this court affirmed the master's finding that the plat accompanying a 1786 deed to the disputed property near the Folly River was "not sufficiently detailed to rebut the State's presumption of title to land below the high water mark." 371 S.C. at 412, 639 S.E.2d at 457. The court noted that the plat "contain[ed] the bare bones of a survey and [was] neither precise nor detailed." Id. The court also concluded that the master "reasonably determined the 1786 grant and accompanying plat did not demonstrate the State's intent to grant title to the marshlands" based on "the absence of terms consonant with granting ...

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