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Lang v. Hannigan

March 20, 2008

STEVEN L. LANG, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOHN HANNIGAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Sussex County, Docket No. C-32-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 11, 2007

Before Judges Fuentes and Chambers.

The discrete issue raised in this appeal concerns the exercise of discretion by the Chancery Division, General Equity Part. Specifically, whether the court abused its discretion by extending the time plaintiff had under a contract of sale to obtain approval to subdivide the property in question. In light of the record developed before the trial court, we discern no basis to interfere with the court's decision, and thus affirm.

We review the legal issue presented in the following factual context.

On February 16, 2006, defendant John Hannigan purchased property located at 30 Ramsey Road, in Wantage Township, Sussex County, consisting of 21.58 acres from plaintiff Steven L. Lang. The purchase price was $736,000. Under the express terms of the contract of sale, plaintiff had the responsibility to subdivide the property into four lots.

Once this was accomplished, defendant would sell back three of the four lots to plaintiff for nominal consideration, and retain title to the fourth lot described in the contract as an "approximate 6 acre tract which contains a residential dwelling." Plaintiff had one year from the date of closing to obtain the approval for the subdivision. If unable to do so within the one-year period, defendant was required to pay defendant $200,000 "for the additional acreage."

On May 12, 2006, plaintiff sent defendant the proposed subdivision packet for his signature.*fn1 In a letter dated May 19, 2006, defendant objected, arguing that the dimensions of the so-called "remainder lot" (5.51 acres) violated the clause of the contract requiring the lot to be "approximate[ly] 6 acres." In fact, according to defendant, the contract required the remainder lot to be a "MINIMUM of six acres."

In response to, but without conceding the validity of defendant's claims, plaintiff submitted revised plans reflecting the creation of two five-acre lots, a third lot of 5.142 acres, and a remainder lot consisting of 6.16 acres. According to plaintiff's engineer Kenneth Dykstra, the lot dimensions were derived to conform to the provisions of a local ordinance which required that "each lot provide 20,000 square feet of contiguous non-constrained land." Dykstra also reduced the dimension of the third lot to augment the size of defendant's remainder lot by .142 acres. The plan also dedicated 0.278 acres to meet the Township's right-of-way requirement.

Despite some initial controversy concerning the date of service, defendant concedes that he received these revised plans (dated July 20, 2006) on August 11, 2006. By letter dated August 15, 2006, defendant again rejected the proposed plan, insisting that the remainder lot be "approximately" 6.58 acres, as opposed to the 6.16 acres reflected in plaintiff's revised plans. To accomplish this, defendant suggested that the other three lots be exactly five acres.

By letter dated September 12, 2006, the municipal land administrator advised plaintiff that the only thing needed to complete the application was defendant's signature as the record owner. Confronted with defendant's position, plaintiff filed the first of two orders to show cause seeking judicial intervention to overcome the impasse.

The matter came before Judge Langlois on November 13, 2006. At this hearing, defendant emphasized his willingness to proceed without filing "papers" in response to plaintiff's version of events. According to defense counsel, the litigation was merely "a stall tactic," designed to frustrate the contractually established one-year deadline. Judge Langlois denied defendant's request, and carried the matter until November 28, 2006.

While the matter was pending, plaintiff submitted a second revised engineering plan showing three five-acre lots, and increasing the size of the remainder lot by .142 acres, for a total of 6.303 acres. The plan retained, ...


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