Mead v. Portland
200 U.S. 148 (1906)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Mead v. Portland, 200 U.S. 148 (1906)

Mead v. Portland

No. 56

Argued November 27, 1905

Decided January 2, 1906

200 U.S. 148

Syllabus

Owners of property erected wharves on the line of an adjoining street on the riverfront in Portland under ordinances adopted by municipal authorities. They made an agreement with a private bridge as to keeping the street open. The city, having bought the bridge, proceeded under legislative authority to change the approaches, and in so doing affected the access to the wharves. The owners sought to enjoin on the ground that it took their property without compensation and impaired the obligation of their contract with the bridge owners. The state court held the ordinances were merely permissive, and that the persons constructing the wharves had no interest or easement in the streets and the proposed change was merely a change of grade of street for which consequential damages were not allowed under the law of the state. Held that:

While the interpretation of a local ordinance by the highest court of the state is not indisputable, and, even though it may conflict with other decisions of the courts of the state, if it does not conflict with any decision made prior to the inception of the rights involved, this Court will lean to an agreement with the state court. Burgess v. Seligman,107 U. S. 20.

The power to grade streets given by a statute is not necessarily exhausted by one exercise thereof, and, where no federal question is involved, this Court must accept the interpretation of the highest court of a state of a local statute as to the extent of the power under a statute authorizing a municipality to change the grade of streets.

Bill in equity to enjoin defendants from closing a certain passageway in the approach of a bridge called the Morrison Street Bridge in the City of Portland, Oregon. The approach leads to plaintiffs' wharves. The bill was demurred to and the demurrer sustained by the trial court, plaintiffs declining to plead further, and a decree was entered dismissing the bill. The decree was affirmed by the supreme court of the state. 45 Or. 1.

The bill alleges that some of the plaintiffs have been for many years owners of Block 76 in the City of Portland, and other plaintiffs have been the owners of Block 77. These blocks are bounded on the east by the Willamette River and on the west

Page 200 U. S. 149

by Front Street. Morrison Street is the north boundary of Block 76 and the south boundary of Block 77. Attached to the properties are valuable riparian rights and wharf rights and privileges, which entitled the owners to build, maintain, and use the same to the established wharf line of the river, and on them are warehouses, docks, and wharves of great value, which are occupied by tenants. The properties are located within the donation land claimed by one Daniel H. Lownsdale, under whom plaintiffs claim as owners. In the dedication by Lownsdale of the plat of the Town of Portland, it is, among other things, provided as follows:

"The wharves and wharfing privileges are specially reserved to the owners of the claim, and never (except by deed) subject to any but the laws of the Territory of Oregon or ordinances of the town or city corporation, as other town (private) property. . . . "

That the Common Council of said City of Portland adopted an ordinance, No. 2273, entitled "An Ordinance Authorizing the Construction of a Wharf on the Willamette River in Front and Opposite Lots Numbers 3 and 4, in Block No. 77," approved September 26, 1878. [Footnote 1]

Page 200 U. S. 150

Also an ordinance, No. 2387, entitled "An Ordinance Authorizing the Construction of a Wharf on the Willamette River in Front of and Opposite Lots Nos. 3 and 4, in Block No. 76," approved February 21, 1879. [Footnote 2]

Page 200 U. S. 151

The predecessors in interest of plaintiffs constructed wharves in conformity with the provisions of the ordinances and the grades established therein, the wharf constructed pursuant to ordinance No. 2387 covering the south half of the street, and that constructed pursuant to ordinance No. 2273 covering the north half of the street. The wharves consisted of two floors or stories, with a large warehouse over the second floor. The second floors were built slightly above the level of Front Street, with approaches as provided in the ordinances. The lower stories or floors of the wharves were considerably below the level of Front Street, and were connected with that street by a roadway running on an incline along Morrison Street from Front Street down to the portion of the wharves built on Morrison Street, which roadway was constructed by the respective owners of the properties. The wharves, docks, and warehouses and the approach thereto have been used by plaintiffs and their predecessors for more than twenty years, and have been used as landing places for boats and vessels navigating the river, and by people and teams having business at the docks and wharves, and the docks and wharves and the approach thereto have been used as a street or highway by the public. The grade of Morrison Street occupied by the roadway leading from Front Street and over that portion of the street upon which the wharves and docks were built has never been established except by said ordinances, and said portions of Morrison Street and the roadway have been and are now improved and used, and the same are a public street and highway, and were built and have been maintained "in reliance of the rights and privileges therein [the ordinance] maintained."

In 1878, the Legislature of the State of Oregon passed an act authorizing the Portland Bridge Company, or its assigns, to

Page 200 U. S. 152

construct and maintain a bridge crossing the Willamette River between Portland and East Portland for all purposes of travel and commerce

"at such point or location on the banks of said river, on and along any of the streets of either of said cities of Portland and East Portland, as may be selected or determined on by said corporation or its assigns, on or above Morrison Street of the said City of Portland, and in streets of said City of East Portland; . . . and provided, that the approaches on the Portland side to said bridge shall conform to the present grade of Front Street in said City of Portland."

The bridge was constructed in 1886, the west end of which was located at the east end of Morrison Street. Between the west end of the bridge and Front Street a plank road or approach was constructed over Morrison Street, but the approach did not conform to the grade of Front Street, but was constructed at an elevation of more than two feet above such grade at the west end of the bridge, and thence inclined to Front Street, and has always been maintained at such elevation. The bridge did not cover the whole of Morrison Street from Front Street to the west end of bridge, but was so constructed that a portion of Morrison Street, in the center thereof and leading from Front Street on an incline to the lower docks and wharves of plaintiffs, was left uncovered and unchanged, the same being about eighteen feet wide and extending easterly from Front Street about ninety-five feet. The approaches constructed by the bridge company have been and are sufficient for the passage to and from the bridge for foot passengers, cars, and vehicles using the bridge. The opening was left in the decking of Morrison Street to provide access to the lower floors of the wharves, and as a means of ingress and egress from them, and did not materially interfere with or obstruct the use of city roadways and the wharves and docks as they had been theretofore used.

In 1895, the City of Portland purchased, under legislative authority, the Morrison Street bridge from the Willamette Iron Bridge Company, the successor in interest to the Portland Bridge Company, and subsequently, under the provision of an

Page 200 U. S. 153

act of the legislature, approved February 21, 1895, the County Court of Multnomah County assumed and has since had the care and operation of the bridge and its approaches.

In 1886, the Willamette Iron Bridge Company began the construction of the bridge and built two piers in the river to support the western end of the bridge in front of the outer line of plaintiffs' wharves, in such position as to obstruct navigation and to greatly interfere with the access to the wharves, and at the same time began to construct the approach to the bridge over Morrison Street in such manner as to interfere with access to the wharves. The owners of the wharves in April, 1887, protested, and a compromise and settlement was effected between the parties whereby the bridge company agreed to forever leave an opening in the bridge approach substantially as it now is, and in consideration thereof the wharf owners agreed to permit the piers to remain as constructed, and as they have ever since remained, and to waive all objection to the construction of the approach in the manner in which it was constructed, leaving the opening forever open and unobstructed for free ingress and egress to the wharves. The parties acted upon the agreement, and the wharf owners did not begin or prosecute legal proceedings. In 1890, however, the company, notwithstanding the agreement, threatened to close up the opening, whereupon the wharf owners commenced a suit in equity to enjoin the threatened injury, and thereupon, in consideration of the dismissal of the suit, the bridge company entered into another agreement to refrain from the threatened acts, and leave the opening and approach in the condition as the same now is.

It is alleged that the City of Portland acquired the bridge and the approach thereof subject to the said agreement, and the rights vested in the plaintiffs thereby, and that the defendants are proceeding, without tendering or offering compensation therefor, to close said opening, and thereby deprive plaintiffs of their property without due process of law, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Page 200 U. S. 154

And it is alleged that the ordinances of the City of Portland, hereinbefore set out, constitute a contract between the city and plaintiffs' predecessors, and the acts of the legislature of the State of Oregon which have been mentioned, so far as they undertake to confer upon defendants the power to close the opening of such bridge without payment of compensation, impair the obligation of such contract, and violate § 10, Article I, of the Constitution of the United States. An injunction was prayed.

Page 200 U. S. 159

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