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Raritan Engine Co. v. Mayor and Council of Township of Edison

Decided: April 15, 1982.


On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Middlesex County.

Matthews, Pressler and Petrella. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, J.A.D.


[184 NJSuper Page 161] Plaintiff Raritan Engine Company No. 2, a volunteer fire company ("Company"), appeals from a judgment entered by the trial judge determining that title to certain real property located in the Township of Edison (formerly known as Raritan Township) vested in the township by operation of N.J.S.A. 40:151-42.*fn1 The Company also contends that the trial judge erred in finding

that it did not obtain title by adverse possession, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-6, and in disposing of the matter on "cross-motions for summary judgment." We affirm.

The essential facts are undisputed. Prior to 1924 and pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:151-1, the township committee of what was then Raritan Township created within the township various fire districts which had all the rights and powers to provide for such fire protection as were conferred upon the township itself by statute. The legal voters of the fire districts were authorized to elect five residents to serve as the Board of Fire Commissioners. Each fire district was designated by number and the commissioners thereof were considered a corporate body invested with the "power to hold, purchase, lease and convey, in their name, such real and personal estate as the purpose of the corporation shall require . . . ." N.J.S.A. 40:151-2. One such corporate body was known as "The Commissioners of Fire District No. 3 in the Township of Raritan and County of Middlesex" ("Commissioners"). On July 1, 1924 and November 1, 1929 William Gross and his wife conveyed to the Commissioners property designated as Lots number 4 and 5 on Gross Terrace. On October 31, 1949 Raritan Township conveyed to the Commissioners Lots 2 and 3 on Gross Terrace. A fire house was subsequently built on this four-lot tract, which constitutes the property in question.

Prior to December 20, 1957 the voters of Raritan Township adopted the provisions of Optional Municipal Charter Plan E under the Faulkner Act, N.J.S.A. 40:69A-1 et seq. , which, among other things, vested administrative power in the mayor and legislative power in the township council. On that same date the mayor and council abolished the Commissioners, effective at noon on January 1, 1958. Not only were the Commissioners eliminated along with the fire district, but the new Township of Edison came into being. Simultaneously there was created a Department of Public Safety consisting of the Division of Fire and the Division of Police. The Division of Fire, under the administration of a Director of Public Safety, consisted of five volunteer companies and a paid force. Numbered among the

volunteer fire companies was plaintiff Company, a nonprofit corporation, incorporated some 50 years ago. Since January 1, 1958 the Company has shared occupancy of the fire house located on the property now in dispute with the paid fire fighters. The Company argues that it is the successor in interest or assignee of the now defunct Commissioners and that once the Commissioners were eliminated, all real property held in their names passed automatically to plaintiff volunteer fire company. Plaintiff relies on the fact that at the time they were disbanded, all the duly elected Commissioners were members of the Company. It further claims title to the property by operation of N.J.S.A. 40:151-42 which provides:

The township committee of any township wherein a fire district shall have been organized may, by resolution authorized in the manner provided in section 40:151-43 of this title, dissolve and abolish said fire district. Upon the adoption of such resolution the fire district shall be dissolved and abolished, and any moneys remaining in the hands of the treasurer of such fire district shall be turned over to the treasurer of such township.

Although the statute provides for automatic transfer of money from the Commissioners to the township upon dissolution of the fire district, it is silent as to disbursement or devolution of real property which might have been held by the Commissioners prior to their being eliminated. Plaintiff now contends that the Legislature specifically intended to exempt real estate from the automatic transfer of funds and points out that when a fire district is abolished upon the creation of two or more municipalities, N.J.S.A. 40:151-47 expressly provides for the allotment and division among those municipalities of "all property, real and personal, money on hand, due or to become due. . . ." Thus, it is argued that by failing to explicitly order the transfer of real estate in N.J.S.A. 40:151-42, the Legislature intended its omission.

The trial judge rejected plaintiff's contention and found that the Legislature's failure to provide for the automatic transfer of real property and assets other than money to the township was

"inadvertent." He considered title in the municipality as the only appropriate result as ...

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