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Ernst v. Hawkins

A-5431-06T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

BOUNDARIES — Where it isn’t clear how to identify a landmark referred to on a boundary survey, it is necessary to determine what the original grantor’s intent was when setting the location in question, but a court may consider equitable interests in determining the general method for resolving such a dispute.

Two landowners had adjacent lakeside lots. One filed a quiet title action to define the location of their boundary. The dispute arose as a result of the accretion of land onto the lakeside borders of their respective lots. The owner who filed the quiet title action (and his predecessors in title) had for many years assumed that a dock fell on their side of the borderline and had used, maintained, and repaired it for many years. The suit was triggered when the neighboring owner put up a fence along what she thought was the current boundary line between the lots. The fence blocked the other owner’s access to the dock. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the owner who had been using the dock, accepting his contention that a maple tree marked the corner of the lots, and that it would be inequitable to conclude that any part of the peninsula or the attached dock fell on the other owner’s property. The neighbor appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a determination of the original grantor’s intent when setting the location of the corner in question. It found the description of the corner in question, described in the original conveyance as a straight line to a marked maple at high water mark – to be ambiguous. The Court found that the conveyance did not clearly reveal whether the controlling natural monument was the maple tree, which was identified by reference to the highwater line, or the highwater line, whose location at the time was indicated as being near the maple tree. It held the question was not capable of being resolved by way of summary judgment because it presented a genuine factual dispute. The Court stated that if the corner in question was fixed by the location of the maple tree, the peninsula and dock would fall on the side of the first owner’s border, but if the corner was not meant to be fixed, but was intended to move with the highwater line, the border’s location would require further proceedings to ascertain its location. It acknowledged that the lower court could consider equitable interests in determining the general method for resolving the parties’ disputes, and could well find again for the owner who had been using the dock, on a necessary fuller record.

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