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Housing Authority v. State

January 7, 1983

HOUSING AUTHORITY OF THE CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY, A/K/A HOUSING AUTHORITY AND REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY OF ATLANTIC CITY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT



Gibson, J.s.c.

Gibson

This is an action to quiet title in which plaintiff has moved for summary judgment. Presented by this motion is the question of whether the State is estopped from making claim to property previously flowed by tidal waters because of riparian grants on adjoining lands previously issued to plaintiff's predecessors in title. The issue appears to be one of first impression.

The undisputed facts may be summarized as follows: Plaintiff Atlantic City Housing Authority (Authority) is the owner of Atlantic City's 80-acre Uptown Urban Renewal Tract. Defendant State of New Jersey claims riparian ownership of a portion

of the renewal tract lying between the landward boundaries of three previous riparian grants and what the State now contends was the high-water line in 1869. Except for a small piece belonging to a third party, the entire disputed parcel (referred to by the parties as the "gore") is owned by the Authority, which has spent close to $1.5 million for acquisition of the land, demolition of existing buildings and relocation of residents.

Of the three pertinent riparian grants, two were made on October 12, 1878 and one on July 8, 1899; all were issued under the authority of the Riparian Act of March 21, 1871, L. 1871, c. 256, ยง 1 (now N.J.S.A. 12:3-10). That act permits the State to make riparian grants to upland owners of "any lands under water in front of" their lands. The procedure for the issuance of grants under this statute is set forth in N.J.S.A. 12:3-7, and it permits the State, upon application, to "designate" the lands to be encompassed by the grant and to "certify" the boundaries of the grant and the amount of compensation.

All three grants recited that the grantees were owners of their respective uplands and refer to the "high water mark" or "high water line" without specifying where that is. Each grant, however, is accompanied by a map showing the high water line. The 1899 grant to James Reilly also contains a proviso declaring the grant void if Reilly were not the actual upland owner. Although there were a number of successive title holders to the grants and the adjoining "upland" over the years, no claim was made to any part of the property by the State until 1979. At that time the State relied on the theory of "avulsion" and contended that between 1869 and 1878, prior to the issuance of the grants, there was a sudden alteration in the shoreline creating the area that now constitutes the gore. Because of its claim that the changes was sudden and violent rather than "gradual and imperceptible," the State laid a riparian claim to the new land. See Garrett v. State, 118 N.J. Super. 594, 600-01 (Ch.Div.1972) (distinguishing avulsion from accretion).

Confronted with this claim, the Authority filed the instant suit seeking to quiet its title to the gore. The State counterclaimed, contending that its interest in the land adjoining the grants was never conveyed and is superior to plaintiff's. The Authority now moves for summary judgment on the ground that the State is estopped by virtue of its prior riparian grants from asserting its title to the gore. Its position may be summarized as follows: The prior grants explicitly recognize the grantees as owners of the upland, and the State cannot now deny that recognition to claim the upland for itself. Moreover, even if the State did not recognize the grantees' upland ownership, it nevertheless, pursuant to statute, "designated" and "certified" each grant's boundaries. The high-water line that constitutes the grants' landward edge also formed the boundary between grant and privately owned "upland." The Authority contends that the State cannot be permitted to "abandon" its own boundary and lay riparian claim to lands it previously treated as "upland" -- particularly after 100 years and millions of dollars of expenditures by the Authority and its predecessors.

The evaluation of this position as well as that of the State is well suited to a motion for summary judgment. Such a motion is appropriate when the record in a case shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. R. 4:46-2. The facts must be construed liberally in favor of the nonmoving party and the burden is on the movant to establish both the absence of a material factual issue and the propriety of the requested legal judgment. See Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 73-75 (1954). In the instant case, despite the State's contrary contention, there are no disputed issues of material fact. For the purposes of its motion, the Authority assumes the validity of the State's "avulsion" theory. There is no dispute that the three riparian grants were made and that they were issued under the authority of the act of March 21, 1871. Although the meaning of the grants is in dispute, that is a question of law. Nor does the State challenge the Authority's

evidence of "reliance" -- the passage of time between the grant and the current claim, the prior "peaceable possession"*fn1 and the money spent for acquisition, construction, demolition and relocation. As a result, the sole issue presented by this motion is whether these undisputed facts justify estopping the State from asserting its riparian claim to the "gore" area.

Estoppel is an equitable doctrine, founded in the fundamental duty of fair dealing imposed by the law, that prohibits a party from repudiating a previously taken position when another party has relied on that position to his detriment. Generally, its elements are a representation (or misrepresentation), knowledge that a second person is acting on the basis of that representation, and substantial detrimental reliance by the second person. See Carlsen v. Masters, Mates & Pilots Pension Plan Trust, 8 ...


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