Adverse possession bill held by committee

TRENTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee held up action on a bill Monday that deals with a variety of intertwined issues: Adverse possession, school funding, tidal lands, victims of Superstorm Sandy, and constitutional amendments.

The panel held up action on S1551 pending further review on various implications of the bill that at its heart, seeks to address conflicting statutes as to when so-called adverse possession can occur.

The issue involves cases in which one entity holds title to land that another entity has occupied and used for decades.

It stemmed from a state Supreme Court decision in which J&M Land Co. argued that it had maintained possession for 39 years of an uncultivated parcel that actually belonged to adjacent entity First Union National Bank.

When J&M went to court seeking to be declared owner through the law of adverse possession, the court denied the claim, ruling that 60 years, not 20 years, was the standard in play.

The bill considered today seeks to remedy the problem, but yet more questions have arisen.

After Sens. Bob Smith, (D-17), Piscataway, and Christopher Bateman, (R-16), Somerville, each pointed out that both the Office of Legislative Services and the Attorney General have raised questions about the constitutionality of the bill as it is written, Chair Sen. Nicholas Scutari, (D-22), Linden, said they would hold the bill and get more information from OLS and bring it back for reconsideration at a later hearing.

At issue is the portion of the bill that deals with tidal lands, lands which often are properties depicted on maps as having so-called small “pencil’’ streams but which in actuality have been dry for decades.

According to an opinion from the AG’s office, if the bill becomes law as is, it would divest New Jersey of its title claim to thousands or former tidal-flow lands, Bateman told the committee.

And that is where school funding comes into play. Funds from state-owned tidal lands are constitutionally pledged to the support of public schools. According to Smith and Bateman, that funding stream can only be changed by voters, not the Legislature.

The lawmakers said millions of dollars for public schools could be at stake.

“How do we justify for voters that we’re giving up the state’s rights on tidal-flow lands,” Smith asked.

However, one witness testifying in favor of the bill, Lawrence Fineberg, of the N.J. State Bar Association, said that “it is well within the purview of the Legislature to set parameters on how the state exercises the public trust doctrine.” 

The issue could also affect Sandy victims who are trying to find the wherewithal to rebuild after last year’s devastating storm.

No one wants to hear 20 or more years after the fact that there are unforeseen difficulties with title or ownership, the committee was told.

One statute set 30 years of actual possession as the standard, 60 years for uncultivated tracts. However, a conflicting statute seemed to set 20 years as the standard.

The bill would set 20 years as the standard of ownership in many cases, and in its original form would have protected those who had owned formerly tidal-flowed property for 40 years from claims by the state.

Adverse possession bill held by committee