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Ernst v. Hawkins

June 12, 2008

KENNETH ERNST AND NANCY ERNST, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
LINDA HAWKINS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Sussex County, Docket No. C-8-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 28, 2008

Before Judges Stern, A.A. Rodríguez and C.S. Fisher.

Plaintiffs Kenneth and Nancy Ernst commenced this quiet title action to resolve a dispute with their neighbor, defendant Linda Hawkins, regarding the location of the boundary between their adjacent, lakeside lots. The dispute arose as a result of the accretion of land onto the lakeside borders of their lots.

Because this dispute is factually convoluted and legally complex, we vacate the summary judgment entered in favor of plaintiffs, reject defendant's argument that she is entitled to summary judgment, and remand for further proceedings.

I.

Plaintiffs are the owners of Block 3130, Lot 69 in Hopatcong*fn1 ; defendant is the owner of the adjacent Lot 68.*fn2 The homes on these lots face Lines Avenue; to their rear, is Lake Hopatcong. The waterside edge of their lots is not straight or evenly curved; instead, there is a peninsula that juts out near the border between the two lots, with a dock affixed at its end. Plaintiffs and their predecessors have long assumed that the peninsula falls on their side of the borderline, and they have apparently used, maintained and repaired the dock for many years.

When these lots were conveyed by their original owner to the parties' predecessors in the early 1920's, the boundary between Lots 68 and 69 was defined as a straight line 170 feet*fn3 from Lines Avenue to "a marked maple, at high water mark of [] Lake [Hopatcong]." The early conveyances indicate that the highwater line carves out a small gulf between the maple tree and the end of the peninsula, as indicated in the following map*fn4

Gradually, since the original conveyance of these lots, the lake has receded, and the gulf depicted in the above illustration on the lakeside of Lot 68 has been filled in, as land has accreted to that side of Lot 68 and on all sides of the peninsula. As a result, a continuation of the border between the lots past the location of the former maple tree would continue on dry land and bisect the peninsula, cutting off its far end and the affixed dock from plaintiffs' side of that line, as illustrated in the following map, which depicts the continuation of the border beyond the maple tree as a broken line:

To summarize the problem at hand, the lake has receded since the original conveyance, with land accreting in the gulf between the peninsula and the place where the maple tree once was, and along all sides of the peninsula. Defendant argues that the border should now be recognized as a continuation of the original 170- foot border from Lines Avenue to the former maple tree, because that line is not interrupted by water, but instead continues over dry land until after its passes through the end of the peninsula. As a consequence of this alleged extension of the original border, defendant argues that the far end of the peninsula and the dock should now be declared to be part of Lot 68 and title should be so quieted.

Plaintiffs argue that defendant is mistaken in asserting that the corner of their lots has moved toward the lake. They contend that this corner was originally -- and remains -- at the place where once stood the maple tree, approximately 170 feet from Lines Avenue. Defendant insists that the highwater line is controlling and that the corner has moved with the highwater line.

This suit, which was intended to resolve the parties' dispute, was triggered by defendant's erection of a fence along the course of what she claims is the current boundary line between Lots 68 and 69 -- a fence that blocked plaintiffs' access to the end of the peninsula and the dock. In granting summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs, and in directing the removal of the fence, the trial judge appears to have accepted the contention that the maple tree marked the corner of the lots and that it ...


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