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Randolph Town Center, L.P. v. County of Morris

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY


February 27, 2006

RANDOLPH TOWN CENTER, L.P. PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF MORRIS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division whose opinion is reported at 374 N.J. Super. 448 (2005)..

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The sole issue before the Court is whether a governmental entity can acquire a prescriptive easement over private property without providing just compensation.

The County of Morris (County) claimed that it had established a prescriptive easement to drain water through a culvert under Sussex Turnpike onto property owned by Randolph Town Center (Randolph), a real estate development company. Randolph, in turn, contended that the drainage created wetlands that made commercial development difficult or impossible, constituting inverse condemnation.

At trial, which began on June 30, 2003, the judge, without objection, charged that the period necessary to establish an easement by prescription is twenty years. A judgment was rendered in the County's favor and Randolph appealed, challenging the denial of a directed verdict; the order barring evidence of a 1983 written easement; the refusal to permit the jury to consider its claim of inverse condemnation; and the determination of a twenty-year prescriptive easement period.

In a published opinion, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial. In making its determination, the appellate panel assumed, without deciding, that based on the record before it, a thirty-year prescriptive period is applicable because the property is neither "woodlands or uncultivated" and contains the remnants of buildings or other improvements. In addition, the Appellate Division ruled that neither the passage of the prescriptive easement period nor its interruption had been established at trial as a matter of law. According to the appellate panel, Randolph should be allowed to proffer evidence in respect of the existence of a 1983 easement over the property in question to prove a break in the chain of adversity or for any other legitimate purpose so long as the jury is properly instructed. The Appellate Division also affirmed the trial judge's denial of Randolph's motion for a directed verdict, concluding that the County offered sufficient evidence of open and notorious use to survive the motion. Lastly, the court determined that the right to compensation for a taking ceases once a possessory interest such as a prescriptive easement has been established.

The Supreme Court granted certification.

HELD: A governmental entity can acquire a prescriptive easement over private property without providing just compensation.Without resolving its correctness, the Court vacates as premature that portion of the Appellate Division opinion that decided the inverse condemnation issue.

1. Courts should not reach a constitutional question such as inverse condemnation unless its resolution is imperative to the disposition of the litigation. That is not the case here. The inverse condemnation issue can be rendered moot by a new trial. Therefore, without resolving its correctness, the Court vacates as premature that portion of the Appellate Division opinion that decided the inverse condemnation issue. (Pp. 3-4)

2. In all other respects, the judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed. (P. 4)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED IN PART, and that portion of the opinion that decided the inverse condemnation issue is VACATED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in this PER CURIAM opinion.

Per curiam.

Argued January 18, 2006

The facts of the case are set forth in detail in the Appellate Division opinion. Randolph Town Ctr., L.P. v. County of Morris, 374 N.J. Super. 448 (App. Div. 2005). Briefly, defendant, County of Morris, claimed that it had established a prescriptive easement to drain water through a culvert under Sussex Turnpike onto property owned by plaintiff, Randolph Town Center. Randolph, in turn, contended that the drainage made planned commercial development infeasible, and constituted an inverse condemnation. At trial the judge, without objection, charged that the period necessary to establish an easement by prescription is twenty years. A judgment was rendered in the County's favor and Randolph appealed, challenging the denial of a directed verdict; the order barring evidence of a 1983 written easement; the refusal to permit the jury to consider its claim of inverse condemnation; and the determination of a twenty-year prescriptive easement period.

In a published opinion, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. Id. at 452. In so doing, the panel assumed, without deciding, that based on the record before it, a thirty-year prescriptive period is applicable because the property is neither "woodlands or uncultivated" and contains the remnants of buildings or other improvements. Id. at 455; see J & M Land Co. v. First Union Nat'l. Bank, 166 N.J. 493, 518-19 (2001) (holding prescriptive easement period established by analogy to thirty-year adverse possession period "excepting woodlands or uncultivated tracts" to which sixty-year period applies).

The Appellate Division went on to rule that "neither the passage of that period nor its interruption was established at trial as a matter of law." Randolph Town Center, supra, 374 N.J. Super. at 455. In addition, the panel determined that Randolph should be allowed to proffer evidence regarding the existence of a 1983 easement over the subject property to prove a break in the chain of adversity or for any other legitimate purpose so long as the jury is instructed accordingly. Id. at 455-56. The panel also affirmed the trial judge's denial of Randolph's motion for a directed verdict, concluding that the County offered sufficient evidence of open and notorious use to survive such a motion. Id. at 456. Finally, the panel determined that the right to compensation for a taking ceases once a possessory interest such as a prescriptive easement has been established. Id. at 458.

Randolph filed a petition for certification, which we granted. 184 N.J. 209 (2005). The sole issue presented is whether a governmental entity can acquire a prescriptive easement over private property without providing just compensation. At oral argument, both parties asked us to vacate the Appellate Division decision regarding inverse condemnation as premature in light of the pending trial. We agree. Courts should not reach a constitutional question unless its resolution is imperative to the disposition of litigation. In re New Jersey Am. Water Co., Inc., 169 N.J. 181, 197 (2001); O'Keefe v. Passaic Valley Water Comm'n, 132 N.J. 234, 240 (1993); Donadio v. Cunningham, 58 N.J. 309, 325-326 (1971). That is not the case here. Indeed, the difficult inverse condemnation issue presented could be rendered moot by the new trial. Therefore, without resolving its correctness, we vacate as premature that portion of the Appellate Division opinion that decided the inverse condemnation issue. In all other respects, the judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in this PER CURIAM opinion.

Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING

20060227

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