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Cooper River Plaza East, LLC v. The Briad Group

359 N.J. Super. 518, 820 A.2d 690 (App. Div. 2003)

DEEDS; RESTRICTIONS—A deed restriction prohibiting construction “forward of the present building line” may be too vague to enforce when it isn’t clear just which building line is being referenced.

A property owner sought to enforce a right of reversion contained in a deed restriction in the deed from a predecessor in interest to an adjoining landowner. The deed restriction prohibited the owner of that property from building “forward of the present building line.” The property owner claimed that its neighbor, a restaurant, violated the deed restriction by building a triangular structure in front of its restaurant. The neighbor responded by arguing that the deed restriction was too vague about what constituted the “building line” to be enforceable. The property owner, while conceding that the deed restriction was vague, sought an evidentiary hearing to construe the meaning of the restriction. The lower court found the deed restriction vague and unenforceable. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, noting the long standing principle that deed restrictions are strictly construed because courts do not favor restraining or impairing alienability of property. A deed restriction is a contract and its interpretation must focus on the mutual purposes of the parties. If the language is so ambiguous that no one can be sure of its meaning, it cannot be enforced. In this case, the Court found, as a matter of law, that the deed restriction was too ambiguous because the phrase “present building line” could mean one of four building lines (assuming the building was a rectangle). There was no other language in the deed to clarify which of the four building lines was restricted from development. Since there was no indication which building line was restricted, the entire provision was unenforceable because the neighboring owner had no guidance as to where it was permitted to build.

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