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Hazek v. Greene

Decided: August 4, 1958.


Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Freund, J.A.D. Goldmann, S.j.a.d., concurs in the result.


The question for determination on these consolidated appeals is whether the plaintiff has successfully proved her claim of easements by prescription over and across the lands of the several defendants for use as bridle paths in connection with the operation of her livery stable and riding academy.

The plaintiff seeks to establish her rights of prescription and to restrain the defendants from interfering with her use. The trial judge found that with respect to the Greene property, also referred to in the record as the Brookstone Development, but originally known and hereafter referred to as the Russell Farm, the plaintiff had established the claimed prescriptive easement, but not so as to the Westerly property, hereafter referred to as the traction company or trolley right of way. The defendants in the Greene suit appeal from the judgment entered against them, and the plaintiff appeals from the judgment in the Westerly suit.

The plaintiff is the owner of a tract of land, consisting of about four acres on Bayard Lane, in Princeton, New Jersey, upon which there is erected a stable large enough to accommodate 30 horses and living quarters, a building containing an indoor riding rink, a cottage, and fences for paddock and jumps. She occupied the premises as a tenant in 1943 and since then has conducted a riding academy under the name of Princeton Riding Club. Horses could be boarded there or hired for riding, and instruction was given in equitation. The plaintiff became the owner of the property on July 19, 1955. While the testimony is in some respects indefinite, it appears that the premises had been used by various tenants for the same purposes as at present at least since 1925.

In July 1955, the defendants Greene and Greenberg purchased 180 acres of land, a part of the "Russell Farm" in Princeton, for building development. The defendant Prentiss is the owner of one of the lots in the development. Part of the property now owned by Greene was formerly part of

the Trenton-Princeton Traction Co. right of way acquired about 1901 without condemnation proceedings, and was used for street railway purposes until 1940.

The defendants Westerly, Inc. and others are the owners of lands which were originally owned by Sarah B. Stockton and used for farming purposes. In January 1901 the traction company instituted condemnation proceedings to acquire a strip of her land as a right of way for its high-speed trolley line, the same line aforementioned, which also traversed part of the present Greene tract. The condemnation commissioners awarded Mrs. Stockton $1,384 as the value of the land taken and $3,433 for all other damages. On appeal, the jury awarded her $667.67 for the land and $1,900 for damages.

Trolley line operations were discontinued on October 31, 1940. By deed dated January 31, 1942, the traction company conveyed the trolley right of way to the surviving executors of Sarah B. Stockton, deceased, for a consideration of $50. The deed recites: "This deed is given for the purpose of assuring the grantees that Trenton-Princeton Traction Company now has no further interest in the strip of ground."

With a view to proving the necessary elements of an easement by prescription across defendants' properties, the plaintiff produced witnesses who testified as to the existence and use by horseback riders of riding trails. Riders included tenants of the then owners of the plaintiff's property and their patrons as well as riders from other stables and members of the public having their own horses.

Mrs. Helen Bergen Lawson testified that about 1920 or 1921 she and her then husband, Harvey Bergen, started a business on John Street in Princeton of hiring horses for riding purposes. It was located about six blocks from the riding stables now owned by the plaintiff. She testified that there were logging trails on or near the Russell Farm and that she and her husband cleaned these trails for horseback riding and also cut new ones. She said that their riding patrons started to use the trails about 1929.

About 1932 the Bergens moved their riding business to the site of the plaintiff's present business. They rented the stable from a Mr. Stratton, although they purchased the riding hall from a Mrs. Froelich. Mrs. Lawson testified that she and her husband operated "a public riding stable," and their customers continued to use the bridle paths and trails over and across the Russell Farm and on to other properties. She said that "everybody used to use the same trails out there." Further, there was always a stable where the Hazek stable is presently located, with "plenty of private horses around that used the same bridle paths all the time," in common with the riding public. She repeated that "[e]verybody used the right of way and the trails * * * everyone that owned horses around, private horses or anyone always used those trails," including riders from several other riding stables. The Bergens continued to operate their riding stables until 1940. In the intervening years she saw no signs posted prohibiting the use of the trails; "no one ever said a word," nor did anyone ever give them permission to use the trails. Mrs. Lawson's husband, Mr. Bergen, died in 1940. She continued to operate the stable; in 1942 she sold the business to Robert Stone.

There was testimony of Fred C. Vossler who patronized the riding stables now operated by the plaintiff since 1932 until the present time. When riding he rode over the trolley right of way on both sides of Stony Brook and followed the riding paths over and across the Russell Farm and beyond. He invariably saw other riders, some singly and others in groups of as many as a dozen riders. He denies seeing any signs forbidding the use of the trails nor did any person ever indicate to him that he was not to use the trails. The riding paths, he said, were visible, he had no trouble in finding them and they were clearly spaced. On cross-examination, he said the trails were numerous, over different farms, "covered a great deal of the countryside" and would take hours to ride. When riding along the trolley right of way and a trolley car was approaching, the riders would in some instances leave the right of way to permit the car to pass.

Robert McVeigh testified that he had been a blacksmith in Princeton for 37 years. He had shod horses since 1922, including those horses at the stable where plaintiff's stable is now located. He had walked over the trails on the Russell Farm, as well as those on other properties and seeing horses on the trails that came from stables other than that at the plaintiff's location.

Wilhelm F. Leisner testified that for about a year during 1929 and 1930 he was employed in the capacity of caring for "a string of horses" at the stable where the plaintiff now conducts her business. He stated that patrons were taught how to ride, and he described in detail the trails over the Russell Farm, the trolley right of way and other properties where he said the riders had a choice of different trails. He said the Russell Farm was "honeycombed with trails," and riders would also go over other farms. He acted as the "second whip" for the Stony Brook Hunt Club and said that the trails on the Russell Farm were used for fox hunting by the members of that club. He testified to trails that extended over the Peyton, Ettl, Agle, Edgerstoune and McAlpin Farms. It was the custom in and around Princeton "for people who rode horseback to ride over other people's farms as well as their own." Leisner testified that Mrs. Benson, one of the heirs of the Russell Farm, was a member of the Hunt Club and participated in some of the hunts. Mrs. Benson had a few horses which she boarded at the Princeton Riding Stables. Other horses used in the hunts were hired from the same stables. He testified that someone -- he was unable to give the name -- in 1941 or 1942 argued with Mr. Stone, who succeeded Mrs. Lawson as a tenant of the stables, about riding over his farm. He heard Stone say he had been "riding over them before and I am going to keep on riding." Leisner testified that he observed signs posted on the Russell Farm which read "Private," "Private Property" and "Keep Off." However, as noted, plaintiff's witness, Vossler, testified he never saw any such signs.

Anita Hazek, the plaintiff, testified that she owns and conducts the business of the Princeton Riding Club, teaching children to ride horses, training horses, and renting horses to the public. She acquired the business in 1943, as already stated, from Stone, who sold her the building containing the indoor ring and other personal property which she alleged included "the right to use the trails." When she purchased the ...

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