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Wilmot Mountain, Inc v. Lake County Forest Preserve District

March 20, 2012

WILMOT MOUNTAIN, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
LAKE COUNTY FOREST PRESERVE DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Wilmot Mountain, Inc. has sued the Lake County Forest Preserve District over a disputed parcel of land that lies on the boundary between their respective properties. Wilmot believes it has a superior right to use the land and has asserted claims for breach of contract, equitable estoppel, unjust enrichment, and prescriptive easement. The District has moved to dismiss all of Wilmot's claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the motion in part and denies it in part.

Background

The Court takes the following factual allegations from Wilmot's complaint and accepts them as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss. Virnich v. Vorwald, 664 F.3d 206, 212 (7th Cir. 2011).

Wilmot operates a ski lodge and several ski runs in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.

The southern boundary of its property is the Illinois/Wisconsin state line. The property on the Illinois side of the border formerly belonged to a private landholder who operated a ski hill like Wilmot's in the 1960s and 1970s. In or around 1979, the landholder closed the ski hill and sold the property to the District. When the District obtained the property, several buildings associated with the failed ski hill remained, including a ski lodge. The District wanted to remove these buildings.

Because the ski lodge was located close to the Wisconsin border and was more easily accessed from Wilmot's property, representatives of the District arranged for Wilmot personnel to demolish the structure and haul the resulting debris onto Wilmot's property. After dismantling the lodge, Wilmot's workers placed the debris near the top of Wilmot's South Run hill, which is next to the boundary between the properties. The workers then covered the debris with dirt and "fill," creating a relatively flat area that measures approximately twenty feet by 120 feet. This area is the subject of this lawsuit.

Wilmot claims that when it agreed to demolish the ski lodge, it was told that "[i]n exchange, [it] would use the extra flat area created at the top of the South Run hill as part of the ascent to the South Run hill." Compl. ¶ 17. Wilmot claims further that "the District understood and agreed through its representatives at the time that Wilmot could utilize the new flat area even if it minimally encroached on the District's property." Id. ¶ 22.

Wilmot believed at the time, however, that the newly created area lay entirely within Wisconsin, and it constructed a fence around the area, on what it believed to be the state line. It used the area without incident for approximately thirty years as a place "for skiers ascending the hill to have a place to wait in line for their turn to ski without hindering other skiers or being in danger from descending skiers." Id. ¶ 20.

In 2010, the District notified Wilmot that, pursuant to an aerial map, it believed that the disputed area was actually in Illinois and therefore part of District property. It asked Wilmot to remove the fence and vacate the area. In response, Wilmot filed this lawsuit, in which it seeks to establish that it has a right to continue to use the disputed area.

Discussion

On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court accepts the facts stated in the complaint as true and draws reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Virnich, 664 F.3d at 212. To survive the motion, the complaint must include enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). A claim is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1949.

A. Breach of contract

In count one of its complaint, Wilmot claims that the District's ejectment of Wilmot from the disputed area will "breach a contract between the parties." Compl. ¶ 31. The District argues that this claim fails because the District lacks the statutory authority to grant the contractual rights that Wilmot asserts and that any contract allowing Wilmot its claimed use would be unenforceable under the Illinois Constitution.

The District is a "special district" under Article VII § 1 of the Illinois Constitution. As such, it "exercise[s] . . . powers in respect to limited governmental subjects [and] shall have only powers granted by law." Ill. Const. art. VII § 8. Wilmot identifies two provisions of the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act, which sets out the responsibilities and organizational structures of forest preserve districts, as providing the District's alleged power to contract in this case. First, the board of any Forest Preserve District organized under this Act may by ordinance issue licenses for any activity reasonably connected with the purpose for which the Forest Preserve District has been created, except that in counties with between 500,000 and 750,000 inhabitants, the ordinance shall be approved by a two-thirds vote of the members elected. 70 ILCS 805/7b. Second, a forest preserve district "shall be construed in all courts to be a body corporate and politic by the name and style determined as aforesaid and by such name may sue and be sued, contract and be contracted with, [and] acquire and hold real and personal estate necessary for its corporate purposes." 70 ILCS 805/3a.*fn1

The District points out that even if its representatives purported to issue Wilmot a license to use the disputed area, they could not properly have done so under the Act without the passage of an ordinance by the District's board. Illinois courts have relied on similar provisions in laws governing municipalities and park districts when invalidating bargains entered by those institutions. See, e.g., Bank of Pawnee v. Joslin, 166 Ill. App. 3d 927, 940, 521 N.E.2d 1177, 1186 (1988); D.C. Consulting Eng'rs v. Batavia Park Dist., 143 Ill. App. 3d 60, 63, 492 N.E.2d 1000, 1003 (1986) ("In this case, there was no ...


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