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Bedewi v. Cedar Lake Property Owners, Inc.

A-0642-05T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING; CONSERVATION EASEMENTS — Even though a property owner grants a conservation easement to appease a neighboring property owner who then agrees not to oppose a variance application by that property owner, just because the municipality eventually denies a variance does not mean that the grant of a conservation easement was induced by duress, especially when the property owner ratifies the grant by waiting three years before attempting to have the grant voided.

Buyers of a plot of land sought to have a conservation easement set aside. They had signed a contract to buy a tract of land from a municipality and also applied for a variance to develop the land that was bordered by two unimproved roads. Before the variance was approved, the buyers had entered into an agreement with a property management association. It included a conservation easement that limited future development of their property. Another agreement between the property management association and the buyers granted an easement to the buyers over a paper street. As a condition of these agreements, the property management association agreed not to appeal any decision made by the municipality regarding the approval of the buyer’s development plan. The buyers agreed in kind, and also agreed to convey a conservation easement to the municipality. Three years later, the buyers applied for a permit and variance to construct a barn on the property. The application was denied, and they filed a complaint seeking to have the conservation easement pertaining to the association considered null and void, claiming it was obtained under duress.

The lower court rejected the claim, noting that the buyers were not also attempting to invalidate the easement given to the municipality. Further, the lower court found the buyers had not produced any evidence to support their claim that the association wrongfully pressured them into granting the conservation agreement. Finally, the lower court analyzed the elements of duress and found the buyers had not proven they were under duress when they signed the agreement. The buyers appealed on the grounds that the easement should have been voided because it was the result of the association’s influence over the municipality, which constituted duress.

The Appellate Division rejected this argument on the basis that the buyers presented no evidence that the municipality’s decision regarding the variance was influenced by the granting of the conservation easement. The Court pointed out that the buyers had not conveyed the easement to the municipality until a year after the initial variance application was approved. The Court, therefore, did not see a connection between the municipality’s decision regarding the variance and the conservation easement. It also noted that the buyers did not claim the easement had been granted under duress until three years later, when their application for a variance to build a barn was denied. Furthermore, the municipality, not the association, had the authority to approve or deny the variance application. Then, the Court went on to hold that even if a party can void a contract due to duress, the same party could ratify the contract once the duress has ended. Here, even if the contract had been induced by duress, the buyers ratified the contract by waiting three years to attempt to have it voided.

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