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Storms v. County of Hunterdon

2006 WL 861480 (N.J. Super. Ch. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS; RECORDING—In deciding whether an unrecorded easement is binding on a subsequent purchaser, a court must balance the following equities: (a) the circumstances surrounding the failure to record; (b) the consequences of the failure to the subsequent purchaser; and (c) the particular public interest being implicated.

A parcel of land (owned by a limited liability company) fronted on two roads. An adjoining second parcel only fronted on the secondary road. According to the County, a subdivision plan involving both parcels was approved conditioned on a grant of an easement for future road expansion from the owner of the first parcel in that portion of the first parcel abutting the primary road. The owner of the second parcel, who was also a member of the limited liability company owner of the first parcel, executed an easement. This easement referenced the second parcel, but also referenced the primary road which did not abut the second parcel. None of the subdivision deed, the county’s approval, or the municipal resolution memorializing the subdivision approval mentioned any easement. Prior to buying the first parcel, the buyer conducted a title search under the name of the owner of the first parcel. The title search indicated the land was unencumbered by easements. Thereafter, the owner of the first parcel deeded the property to the buyer. Four years later, the buyer submitted another subdivision application affecting land fronting the secondary road. This time, the County conditioned its approval on the conveyance of an easement for future expansion of the first road. The buyer challenged this condition based on the fact that the land to be subdivided only fronted on the secondary road, not the primary road. The County changed its position and limited the easement to a thirty-day construction easement along the primary road in an effort to regrade a slope. The buyer filed a complaint to invalidate the county’s easement created in the first subdivision, and moved for summary judgment. It claimed that because the easement granted by the owner of the second parcel was outside the chain of title for the first parcel, it had no notice of the easement, and therefore the easement should be declared null and void. The County contended that the buyer did not complete a proper diligence investigation prior to purchasing the property.

The Court held that under the recording statutes, subsequent purchasers are only bound by those instruments that can be discovered by a reasonable title search. Further, courts should decide questions of title in a manner designed to maintain the integrity of the recording system. Here, the Court found that there was a deed in the chain of title that made specific reference to the County’s subdivision approval as well as the memorialization of the approval in a municipal resolution. It further found that the municipal resolution conditioned its approval on compliance with all County enactments, rules, and regulations. According to the Court, the buyer was put on notice that the first lot was subject to the original municipal resolution. Further, the municipal resolution indicated that the four members of the limited liability company (the original owner of the first parcel) were each listed as applicants of the original subdivision. The buyer should have known that the first parcel was subdivided and subject to the restrictions arising from the subdivision.

Accordingly, the Court denied the buyer’s motion for summary judgment, but provided for additional discovery to see if a reasonable title searcher should have conducted a more diligent inquiry and discovered the municipal resolution and easement.

In deciding if an unrecorded easement is binding on a subsequent purchaser, a court must balance the following equities: (1) the circumstances surrounding the failure to record the restriction; (2) the consequences of the failure to record to the subsequent purchaser; and (3) the particular public interest implicated in the case. If a reasonable title searcher would not have found the easement, a court should weigh the factors in favor of the public interest in preserving the integrity of the recording statutes and against a public interest in widening the road.


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