And on the Third Day…

land disputes

Dry land has been around—well, according to the Bible,  since the third day of the Creation.  So it is not surprising that land disputes relating to ownership of real property often have their “Genesis”  in facts, circumstances, and documents with an ancient pedigree.  A recent case, in which the Town of Southampton and the Freeholder Trustees sued for a judgment declaring them to be the sole owners of real estate on the shore of Moriches Bay, Suffolk County, reached and searched back to a decree promulgated in 1686 and a statute enacted in 1818.

The case arose out of a dispute over whether the movement of sand caused by storms affected the ownership of certain property. Suit was filed against the Incorporated Village of West Hampton Dunes and owners of property located on the north side of Dune Road, just south of Moriches Bay.

Southampton alleged that “in or about 1973 to 1975, and particularly between December 1992 and March 1993 and for several years prior thereto, a hurricane and a series of unusually strong winter storms, or Nor’easters'” caused “[m]illions of tons of sand and earth [to be] deposited into [the bottom of] Moriches Bay upon the Trustee lands, immediately north of the properties owned by [the defendants].”

Southampton also alleged that, as a result of these avulsive events, dry land between Dune Road and Moriches Bay extended from what had previously been approximately 200-300 feet, to approximately 700-800 feet, and the high-water mark of Moriches Bay shifted northward. Southampton and the Trustees contended that they owned  “the additional land” that was previously under Moriches Bay.

Southampton’s claim of ownership was based on a 1686 decree known as the Dongan Patent. The Governor of the Province of New York, Thomas Dongan, acting on royal authority, created the Board of Trustees as a body politic to hold certain lands for the general use and benefit of the residents of the Town. Among other provisions, the Dongan Patent gave the Trustees the right to own and control certain lands, including waters, beaches, and the lands under the water within the boundaries of the Town.

In 1818, the New York State Legislature enacted a statute that transferred to a new corporate body the title to the undivided lands that had belonged to the Trustees. The 1818 Law provided that the trustees of the new corporate body “shall have the same power to superintend and manage the undivided lands, meadows and mill streams aforesaid, as [the Trustees] . . . now have, and shall have full power to sell, lease, or to partition, and to make such rules and regulations, and by-laws for managing the said lands, meadows and mill streams, and meadows that may hereafter make in the waters of said town, that shall not be the property of individuals”.

The 1818 Law also provided that the new corporate body was not given authority over the waters of the Town. Instead, those powers were expressly reserved to the Trustees. In 1831, additional legislation was enacted reaffirming the Trustees’ powers over the Town’s waters.

The local property owners moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the grounds that the action was barred by the statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches. According to them, the action was time-barred because Southampton neither possessed the disputed land during the 10 years prior to the commencement of the action nor asserted any possessory interest during that period of time. They also contended that, even if the action was not time-barred, it was barred by the doctrine of laches based on the prejudice to them resulting from Southampton’s delay in commencing the action.

Southampton opposed the owners’ motion and cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the owners’ second counterclaim, which sought a judgment declaring that they owned the disputed land based on adverse possession.

Supreme Court granted the owners’ motion and dismissed the complaint, as barred by the statute of limitations. The Court also denied that branch of the Town’s cross-motion for summary judgment dismissing the local property owners’ second counterclaim, which sought a judgment declaring that they own the disputed land pursuant to adverse possession. The Court determined that a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the owners adversely possessed the disputed land.

CPLR 212(a) provides that “[a]n action to recover real property or its possession cannot be commenced unless the plaintiff, or his [or her] predecessor in interest, was seized or possessed of the premises within ten years before the commencement of the action.” However, the 10-year limitations period does not begin to run against a record owner of property until the occupiers of the property begin to adversely possess it.

The appeals court held that Supreme Court erroneously determined that the owners were entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint as asserted against them on the ground that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. Calculation of the date from which the statute of limitations began to run on Southampton’s causes of action required a threshold determination as to whether the owners are the record owners of the disputed land, and secondly, whether, and if so, when, the owners began to adversely possess the land. The owners failed to conclusively establish that Southampton was not the record owner of the disputed land for the purposes of determining a date upon which the statute of limitations began to run.

The appeals court also held that, contrary to the owners’ contentions, a determination of who is the title holder of the disputed land was not simply a matter of statutory interpretation of the 1818 Law.  In fact, such a determination required resolution of a number of issues of fact, including whether the uplands along the shore of the Moriches Bay constituted “undivided lands” at the time the 1818 Law was enacted and whether the disputed land constitutes “meadows that may hereafter make” within the meaning of that 1818 Law. And there were triable issues of fact as to whether the owners adversely possessed the disputed land. Thus, the owners failed to establish that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. Thus, their motion to dismiss the complaint based on the statute of limitations should have been denied.

What’s more, the appeals court finally held that, even if the owners had met their prima facie burden as to the statute of limitations, Southampton raised triable issues of fact in opposition by submitting evidence that the owners’ upland properties had been divided prior to 1818 and were in private ownership by virtue of a 1712 allotment that was made by the Trustees.  If true, such facts would make the 1818 Law inapplicable to the determination of who owns the disputed land.

The owners also failed to establish, prima facie, that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on their laches defense. Here, although the owners established that Southampton did not commence the action until a lengthy period of time after the alleged avulsive acts had occurred, they failed to eliminate issues of fact as to whether the Southampton’s failure to act was excusable, whether Southampton was taking actions to adversely possess the disputed land, and whether and when the Towns should reasonably have become aware of such alleged acts.

Accordingly, the appeals court  concluded  that Supreme Court correctly denied that branch of the Southampton’s cross motion which was for summary judgment dismissing the owners’ second counterclaim, which sought a judgment declaring that they own the disputed land based on adverse possession. The issues bearing on the parties’ respective causes of action alleging ownership of the disputed land were inextricably intertwined.  Since there were triable issues of fact as to the possession and ownership of the disputed land, Southampton was not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the defendants’ second counterclaim.