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An unpublished opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals does not constitute controlling legal authority. Citation is disfavored, but may be permitted in accordance with the provisions of Rule 30(e)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

NO. COA06-1034

NORTH CAROLINA COURT OF APPEALS

Filed: 15 May 2007

LITTLE RIVER SOIL FARM,
    Plaintiff-Appellee,

v .                         Wake County
                            No. 00 CVS 13543
DANNY L. HILL and wife,
MARJORIE P. HILL; DALLAS
J. SASSER, Trustee; GEORGE
N. HAMRICK, Trustee; DANNY
R. GORDON; VICKY G. MARTIN;
RICHARD O. GAMBLE, Trustee;
G. HENRY TEMPLE, Trustee;
RIVEREDGE ACRES, INC., aka
RIVER EDGE ACRES; FERD L.
DAVIS, Trustee; and ERDYNE
H. YATES,
    Defendants-Appellants.

    Appeal by Defendants from judgment entered 15 November 2002 by Judge Jack W. Jenkins and from judgment entered 15 March 2006 by Judge A. Leon Stanback in Superior Court, Wake County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 8 March 2007.

    J. Michael Weeks, P.A., by J. Michael Weeks, for Plaintiff- Appellee.

    Smith Debnam Narron Wyche Saintsing & Myers, L.L.P., by W. Thurston Debnam, for Defendants-Appellants Vicky Gordon Martin and Danny R. Gordon.

    McGEE, Judge.

    Little River Soil Farm (Plaintiff), a general partnership, filed an action for declaratory judgment on 28 November 2000 against, inter alia, Vicky G. Martin and Danny R. Gordon (Defendants). Plaintiff alleged it owned a thirty-acre parcel ofreal property in Little River Township in Wake County. Plaintiff alleged Defendants owned a parcel of real property containing more than eighty acres in Little River Township in Wake County (Defendants' property). Plaintiff further alleged that its only means of access from its real property to U.S. Highway 64, a public right-of-way, was along a road extending through Defendants' property and several other tracts of land (the easement). Plaintiff also alleged that the easement had been used for access to U.S. Highway 64 for more than eighty years by Plaintiff and Plaintiff's predecessors in title. Plaintiff alleged it could not obtain a building permit to repair the single family dwelling on its property until a map was recorded in the Wake County Registry showing Plaintiff's means of access to a public right-of-way. Plaintiff further alleged that "[n]one of the parties have denied that . . . Plaintiff ha[d] a right to use the road within [the easement] for access from [its property] to U.S. Highway 64."
    Plaintiff demanded "[t]hat the Court authorize entry upon the lands affected by [the easement] for the purpose of having the road bed of [the easement] surveyed by a Registered Land Surveyor[.]" Plaintiff also sought the entry of a declaratory judgment defining the scope and extent of the easement. Plaintiff further requested that the declaratory judgment and the map of the survey locating the easement be recorded in the Wake County Registry.
    Defendants filed an answer on 1 February 2001, admitting "that . . . Plaintiff's predecessors in title ha[d] obtained a prescriptive easement over [the easement]." However, Defendantsdenied that Plaintiff had the right to relocate or expand the easement or to increase its burden on Defendants' property. Defendants requested that the trial court "issue an order defining the scope and extent of the prescriptive easement acquired by . . . Plaintiff's predecessors in title which specifically limit[ed] . . . Plaintiff's use to those consistent with prior usage which consisted of access for a single family [dwelling] and access for seasonal farming and seasonal farm equipment."
    The trial court held hearings 29 - 31 July 2002. Defendants moved to dismiss at the close of Plaintiff's evidence and at the close of all the evidence. The trial court denied both motions and entered judgment on 15 November 2002. The trial court made numerous findings of fact and concluded that Plaintiff had acquired an easement by prescription across Defendants' property and several other tracts of real property. In its judgment the trial court further concluded that:
        ["]Under the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment, the width of an undefined easement is determined by considering the purpose of the easement and establishing a width necessary to effectuate that purpose. . . . [']Determination of the necessary width under the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment [presents] a question of fact.[']"

quoting Intermount Distrib'n, Inc. v. Public Serv. Co. of N.C., Inc., 150 N.C. App. 539, 543, 563 S.E.2d 626, 630 (2002) (quoting Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District v. Dickie, 43 P.3d 1277, 1281 (Wash. Ct. App. 2002)).     The trial court's judgment also stated the following:
         1. . . . Plaintiff has an easement for theright of ingress, egress and regress across the Hill Tract, [Defendants' property], Riveredge Tract and Yates Tract for access to US Highway 64 from . . . Plaintiff's Land [the easement].

         2. The location of [the easement] is generally along the "Soil and Gravel Path" as shown on the Williams-Pearce Map.

         3. The right of way of [the easement] is 30 feet wide.

         4. The existing buildings on [Defendants' property] do not encroach on [the easement] and [the easement] shall be located by the Professional Land Surveyor appointed by this Court so as not to interfere with the use and enjoyment of any existing buildings on [Defendants' property].

         5. The Court appoints Williams-Pearce, Professional Land Surveyors, to survey the boundaries of [the easement] as located and defined by this Judgment and to submit a map of the survey, in such form as may be filed for recordation in the Wake County Register of Deeds Office, for review and approval of this Court.

    The trial court also entered judgment on 15 March 2006, in which it stated that Plaintiff had offered into evidence "a map of a survey marked 'Plaintiff's Exhibit 1' that was entitled 'Court Ordered Easement Survey for Little River Soil Farm v. Danny L. Hill, et al (00 CVS 13543[)], Wake County Superior Court' dated September 1, 2004." The trial court found, concluded, and ordered that the map did locate on the ground the easement granted to Plaintiff by the trial court's 15 November 2002 judgment. The trial court further ordered the map to be recorded in the Wake County Registry. Defendants appeal both judgments. However, Defendants assign error only to the trial court's denial of theirRule 41(b) motions to dismiss and to the trial court's 15 November 2002 judgment.

I.

    Defendants argue the trial court committed reversible error by concluding that the width of Plaintiff's easement should be determined by application of the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment. Defendants argue that the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment only applies to the determination of the extent of an easement by grant and that the scope of an easement by prescription should be determined by the character and pattern of the user during the period of prescription.
    While we agree with the principles of law stated by Defendants, we must nevertheless affirm the trial court's judgment. Where "a court's ruling [is] based upon a misapprehension of law, '[but] the misapprehension of the law does not affect the result[,] . . . the judgment will not be reversed.'" Smith v. Beaufort County Hosp. Ass'n., 141 N.C. App. 203, 212, 540 S.E.2d 775, 781 (2000) (quoting Bowles Distributing Co. v. Pabst Brewing Co., 69 N.C. App. 341, 348, 317 S.E.2d 684, 689 (1984)), disc. review denied, 353 N.C. 381, 547 S.E.2d 435, aff'd per curiam, 354 N.C. 212, 552 S.E.2d 139 (2001).
    "[A]ppellate review of findings of fact and conclusions of law made by a trial [court], without a jury, is limited to a determination of whether there is competent evidence to support [the trial court's] findings of fact and whether, in light of such findings, [the trial court's] conclusions of law were proper." Starco, Inc. v. AMG Bonding and Ins. Services, 124 N.C. App. 332, 335, 477 S.E.2d 211, 214 (1996).
        Moreover, findings of fact by a trial [court] in a non-jury trial have the force and effect of a jury verdict; and if the evidence tends to support the trial court's findings, these findings are binding on appeal, even though there may be some evidence to support findings to the contrary.

Id. However, we apply de novo review to a trial court's conclusions of law. Id. at 336, 477 S.E.2d at 215.
    In the present case, the trial court applied the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment, relying upon Intermount Distrib'n, Inc., 150 N.C. App. at 543, 563 S.E.2d at 630. However, in Intermount Distrib'n, Inc., our Court interpreted an easement by grant which did not specify the width of the easement. Id. at 542, 563 S.E.2d at 629. Our Court held that "when the width of an easement is not specifically defined in the grant, such as the one in the instant case, then the 'previously undefined width is then established by the rule of reasonable enjoyment.'" Id. at 543, 563 S.E.2d at 630 (quoting Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, 43 P.3d at 1281). Our Court further held: "Under the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment, the width of an undefined easement is determined by considering the purpose of the easement and establishing a width necessary to effectuate that purpose." Id. (citing Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, 43 P.3d at 1281).
    However, this rule does not apply in the context of easements by prescription. Rather, in Blevins v. Welch, 137 N.C. App. 98, 527 S.E.2d 667 (2000), our Court recognized that "'[i]n the case ofeasements arising by prescription, the character and pattern of the user during the whole [prescriptive] period during which the easement came into being determines its extent.'" Id. at 104, 527 S.E.2d at 672 (quoting 1 James A. Webster, Jr., Webster's Real Estate Law in North Carolina § 15-22, at 736 (5th ed. 1999)). Accordingly, the trial court in the present case entered its judgment under a misapprehension of law.
    Defendants argue they were prejudiced because the trial court, by applying the doctrine of reasonable enjoyment, "gave Plaintiff . . . the use of more land than it actually took by prescription[.]" We disagree. The trial court made several findings regarding the character and pattern of the usage of the easement during the prescriptive period.
    In findings 15 and 16, the trial court found that since the 1950s, Plaintiff's predecessors in title had continuously used the easement for access to the single family dwelling on the property and to move farm equipment to and from the property. In findings 17 and 18, the trial court found that from 1980 until 2001, Randy Angus Gay (Mr. Gay) had rented the property from Plaintiff and Plaintiff's predecessors in title, and that Mr. Gay had used the easement to move his farm equipment to and from the property several times during each farming season. The trial court also made, and Defendants challenge, the following findings of fact:
        20. To provide adequate clearance for the movement of [Mr. Gay's] farm equipment along [the easement], at the beginning of each farm season [Mr.] Gay would clear a 30 foot right of way along the "Soil and Gravel Portion" of [the easement] by cutting with a heavy tractormower any bushes, shrubs or undergrowth within the 30 foot right of way.

        . . . 

        25. For at least 20 years, . . . Plaintiff and . . . Plaintiff's predecessors in title have maintained a clearly identifiable 30 foot right of way along the "Soil and Gravel Portion" of [the easement] for the seasonal movement of farm equipment to and from [Plaintiff's property] via [the easement] to US Highway 64.

        26. For . . . Plaintiff to have reasonable enjoyment of [the easement] for the seasonal movement of farm equipment to and from [Plaintiff's property] via [the easement] to US Highway 64, . . . Plaintiff requires a 30 foot right of way along the "Soil and Gravel Portion" of [the easement]. 

Defendants also challenge the trial court's determination that "[t]he right of way of [the easement] is 30 feet wide."
    Defendants argue that findings 20 and 25 "cannot be upheld on appeal" because they were made under a misapprehension of law. Defendants cite McGill v. Lumberton, 215 N.C. 752, 3 S.E.2d 324 (1939), where our Supreme Court held that "[f]acts found under misapprehension of the law will be set aside on the theory that the evidence should be considered in its true legal light." Id. at 754, 3 S.E.2d at 326. However, while this is a correct principle of law, it is also true that where a misapprehension of law does not affect the result, a judgment will not be reversed. Smith, 141 N.C. App. at 212, 540 S.E.2d at 781.
    Defendants also argue that findings 20 and 25 were not supported by sufficient evidence. We disagree. These findings were supported by the testimony of Mr. Gay, who testified asfollows:
        Q. And in the last 20 years since 1980, approximately . . . how wide did you need a right-of-way in order to get your equipment through there without tearing it up?

        A. If you . . . turn a truck -- everybody knows what a big truck looks like. If you turn a truck you know about how much room you need. There has never been enough room over there as far as that part.

            But from ditch to ditch. That would be not driving in the ditch, but just the top of the ditch. From ditch to ditch it needs to be at least 30 [feet] to turn.

        Q. And if it were less than that, would that -- could that cause damage to the kind of equipment that you had to drive through there?

        A. Definitely.

Mr. Gay also testified that it was his job to maintain the easement:
        Q. Okay. And can you tell us what you would do to maintain that [easement] from B to A as shown on this aerial map?

        A. Whatever . . . the owner [said]. . . .

        Q. And approximately how wide -- did you from time to time have to use your bush hog in order to cut back the soil of the roadway in certain places?

        A. The ditches have to be maintained or you can't have a road.

        . . . 

        Q. And so when it was necessary you would go in and do what was necessary to cut back so that you would have that much right-of-way?

        A. Whatever . . . the owner [said]. They . . . were in control. I just satisfied the owners.
    We hold Mr. Gay's testimony was sufficient evidence to support the challenged findings of fact. We further hold that these findings of fact, along with findings 15, 16, 17, and 18, were sufficient to support the trial court's conclusion that Plaintiff acquired an easement by prescription over Defendants' property. The trial court's findings of fact also supported its determination that the easement was 30 feet wide. Defendants further argue that finding 26 is irrelevant. We agree. However, even without this finding, there were sufficient findings to support the trial court's judgment.
II.

    Defendants argue the trial court committed reversible error by failing to limit the scope of the easement to access for a single family dwelling and seasonal movement of farm equipment. The trial court stated its judgment as follows: "Plaintiff has an easement for the right of ingress, egress and regress across the Hill Tract, [Defendants' property], Riveredge Tract and Yates Tract for access to US Highway 64 from . . . Plaintiff's Land [the easement]." Therefore, the trial court did not limit the permissible uses of the easement to access to the single family dwelling and to seasonal movement of farm equipment.
    As we stated earlier, "'[i]n the case of easements arising by prescription, the character and pattern of the user during the whole [prescriptive] period during which the easement came into being determines its extent.'" Blevins, 137 N.C. App. at 104, 527 S.E.2d at 672 (quoting 1 James A. Webster, Jr., Webster's RealEstate Law in North Carolina § 15-22, at 736 (5th ed. 1999)). Therefore, Plaintiff only acquired the easement for the purposes of access to the single family dwelling and to seasonal movement of farm equipment. While the trial court's judgment does not specify these as the only uses of the easement, the trial court's findings of fact reflect these limitations.
        An elementary North Carolina rule in the interpretation of judgments is that the pleadings, issues and other circumstances of the case must be considered. Judgments must be interpreted like other written documents, not by focusing on isolated parts, but as a whole, in light of practicality and the intention of the court.

White v. Graham, 72 N.C. App. 436, 441, 325 S.E.2d 497, 501 (1985) (citations omitted). In light of these principles, we interpret the trial court's judgment to limit Plaintiff's easement to the uses of access to a single family dwelling and to seasonal movement of farm equipment. Therefore, we overrule this assignment of error.
III.

    Defendants also assign error to the trial court's appointment of Williams-Pearce, Professional Land Surveyors, to survey the boundary of the easement, arguing that the trial court's findings and the evidence were insufficient to locate the easement. However, the trial court ordered a survey of the boundaries of the easement "as located and defined by this Judgment[.]" We conclude that the trial court's findings of fact and the evidence before the trial court were sufficient to locate the boundaries of the easement. The trial court found the following:        10. . . . Plaintiff offered into evidence without objection a map entitled "Farm Path Location for Little River Soil Farm" prepared by Williams-Pearce & Associates, P.A., Professional Land Surveyors, (hereafter "Williams-Pearce Map") that shows [the easement] as defined by the traveled area of [the easement].

        11. The "Soil and Gravel Portion" of [the easement] as shown on the Williams-Pearce Map varies in width from 12 to 26 feet.

        12. The "Soil and Gravel Portion" of [the easement] as shown on the Williams-Pearce Map does not include shoulders and ditches.

        . . . 

        24. The location of the "Soil and gravel Portion" of [the easement] as shown on the Williams-Pearce Map has remained in the same place and has been clearly identifiable for at least 20 years.

In finding 25, the trial court also found that "[f]or at least 20 years, . . . Plaintiff and . . . Plaintiff's predecessors in title have maintained a clearly identifiable 30 foot right of way along the 'Soil and Gravel Portion' of [the easement][.]" In its judgment, the trial court stated that "[t]he location of [the easement] is generally along the 'Soil and Gravel Path' as shown on the Williams-Pearce Map[,]" and that "[t]he right of way of [the easement] is 30 feet wide." We conclude that the evidence before the trial court and the trial court's findings of fact were sufficient to locate the easement. We overrule this assignment of error.
IV.

    Defendants argue the trial court erred by denying their motions to dismiss under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 41(b). "Theproper standard of review for a motion for an involuntary dismissal under Rule 41 is (1) whether the findings of fact by the trial court are supported by competent evidence, and (2) whether the findings of fact support the trial court's conclusions of law and its judgment." Dean v. Hill, 171 N.C. App. 479, 483, 615 S.E.2d 699, 701 (2005). In support of this assignment of error, Defendants repeat their argument that the evidence did not support the trial court's determination that the easement was 30 feet wide. Because we have already held that the trial court's findings were supported by the evidence, and that the findings supported the trial court's conclusion that the easement was 30 feet wide, we overrule this assignment of error.
    Affirmed.
    Judges CALABRIA and STEPHENS concur.
    Report per Rule 30(e).

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