The original plaintiffs herein, Edgar L. Riggle and Blanche E. Riggle, by way of bill filed in the Court of Chancery, sought either to obtain a judgment directing the defendant to convey to them certain premises in the Township of Lower, New Jersey, known and designated as Lot 6 in Block 18, upon the payment by them of the reasonable fair value thereof, or in the alternative, to reform a certain deed from said Township to defendant, to the end that said Lot 6 in Block 18 shall be excluded therefrom, and a restraint against an action in ejectment theretofore commenced by the defendant. The said Township of Lower has intervened as a plaintiff, seeking similar relief by way of reformation.
The facts in connection herewith are as follows: The land and premises here involved were a part of a tract which had
its heyday in the real estate boom in the late 1920s. There were originally some 1,900 lots which the owner developed and sought to sell. At that time the lands were a portion of the Borough of North Cape May, which subsequently merged with the said Township of Lower in 1946.
There appear to have been only 8 or 9 houses built on this entire tract until 1946. One of these is the subject of the present controversy. As occurred with so many of the real estate dreams of that era, this one evaporated into thin air and left the municipality with few if any taxpayers.
Some time prior to 1946, the testimony does not disclose exactly when, a house was built, supposedly upon lots 7 and 8 in Block 18. By deed dated February 5, 1946, the plaintiffs Riggle obtained title to Lots 7 and 8 in Block 18 for a consideration of $1,500. At that time unimproved lots were selling for from $7.50 to $50 each, with few if any purchasers. The plaintiffs presumed that they were buying the house here in question, which was unoccupied and in sad need of repair. The windows were broken in the house proper, as were those in the shed. The front door had been broken in and the rain and the elements had affected the floors. The baseboards and quarter-rounds were out of place. The lavatory and toilet fixtures were gone. The roof leaked and the plaster was off the walls. As photographs demonstrate, the lawn and garden were overgrown with tall weeds and the surrounding brush had encroached upon the property itself. The house showed that it had been unoccupied for some time and that vandals had taken advantage of this state.
Plaintiffs immediately proceeded, with their own labor, to repair the house and put it into habitable condition, spending all of their spare time every week and for some full weeks at a time in this undertaking. By December of 1946 the house, so far as the exterior is concerned, was in a reasonably presentable condition, including the landscaping. Any one passing must have noticed the work and improvements. All told, plaintiffs expended some $3,150 upon the rehabilitation of
the property over a two and one-half year period after the purchase.
At the time of the purchase of Lots 7 and 8 in Block 18, plaintiffs retained a Thomas J. Minnick, Jr., a member of the Bar of the State of Pennsylvania, to represent them. They had an agreement with him that he was to make certain, in their language, that they would obtain a "clear title." They received a title policy from the Cape May County Title & Trust Company insuring the title to Lots 7 and 8 in Block 18 but did not obtain at that time any survey, in order to ascertain whether the house was located in the position which they believed it was, i.e. , on the lots which they were purchasing. The details in connection with the title were left exclusively to their counsel.
In November or December of 1946, plaintiffs having decided that they desired additional ground adjacent to one side of their property for landscaping, and for the removal of the fire hazard of the encroaching brush, made application to the Township of Lower for the purchase of Lots 1 to 6 inclusive, in Block 18, which had been assessed both by the Borough of North Cape May and by the Township of Lower as unimproved vacant land, and to which the Borough of North Cape May had obtained title by a voluntary conveyance in lieu of foreclosure of a tax sale certificate. They were then advised by a Township Committeeman, one Edward H. Phillips, that if they would offer $250 for Lots 1 to 6 inclusive in Block 18, the municipality would advertise a public sale thereof, with a minimum bid price of $250. On the date that the lots were put up for public sale, plaintiff Edgar L. Riggle, then being sick in Philadelphia, did not attend. The defendant, Joseph W. Skill, however, was very fortuitously present at the Township committee meeting and offered the sum of $251 for said lots. They were ...