City of Albany v. State

Decision Date12 May 1971
Docket NumberNo. 39793,39793
Citation321 N.Y.S.2d 877,28 N.Y.2d 352,270 N.E.2d 705
Parties, 270 N.E.2d 705 CITY OF ALBANY, Appellant, v. STATE of New York, Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

John W. Hacker, Corp. Counsel (Harold E. Blodgett and Raymond E. Marinelli, Albany, of counsel), for appellant.

Louis J. Lefkowitz, Atty. Gen. (Julius L. Sackman and Ruth Kessler Toch, Albany, of counsel), for respondent.

SCILEPPI, Judge.

In this appeal we have been asked to determine whether the City of Albany had title to 8.5 acres of land, taken by the State of New York in 1961, for the State University campus.

The ownership of the property in question traces back to the 1686 Dongan Charter. In 1817 the city decided to divest itself of some of its property and authorized the preparation of the Van Alen map. This map set forth several 'Great Lots' bordering along a paper street--then denominated Lydius Street and now known as Madison Avenue--and it is the title to this proposed street, which through the years has never been developed as such, that is the subject of this appeal. 1

In 1818 the 'Great Lots' were conveyed to several diverse grantees and the deeds executed by the city, referring to the Van Alen map, contain recitations that the lots granted were bounded by Lydius Street. By 1900, the Albany Country Club had acquired the lots through mesne conveyances and built a golf course thereon. The record reveals that the bed of Lydius Street was used by the country club as an integral part of the gold course and that tees, fairways and greens were built on the proposed street. In 1961, by filing a map, the entire Albany Country Club property, including the land involved herein, was taken by the State for development into what is now the State University of New York at Albany. In all, 301 acres were acquired by the State; however, in the ensuing condemnation proceeding, the compensation award was limited to 292.5 acres because of a concession by the country club that it did not own Lydius Street (Albany Country Club v. State of New York, 37 Misc.2d 134, 135, 235 N.Y.S.2d 684, 686, mod. 19 A.D.2d 199, 241 N.Y.S.2d 604, affd. 13 N.Y.2d 1085, 246 N.Y.S.2d 407, 196 N.E.2d 62).

In the instant proceeding, the city, claiming compensation for the remaining 8.5 acres, has unsuccessfully argued in the courts below, that it had title to Lydius Street at the time of the taking by the State. Rejecting this contention, the Court of Claims and the majority at the Appellate Division, 35 A.D.2d 881, 315 N.Y.S.2d 727, have adopted the view that the city divested itself of title to the street when it conveyed the 'Great Lots' and consequently, is not entitled to compensation. We disagree and conclude that the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed and the matter remanded to the Court of Claims for an assessment of damages.

It is well settled that, where a grantor divides his property into lots which border on a street or highway and executes conveyances which describe the property as abutting the street, the grant is deemed to pass the fee to the center line of the street (Bissell v. New York Cent. R.R. Co., 23 N.Y. 61; Matter of Ladue, 118 N.Y. 213, 23 N.E. 465; Geddes Coarse Salt Co. v. Niagara, Lockport & Ontario Power Co., 207 N.Y. 500, 503, 101 N.E. 456; Matter of City of New York (165th St.), 258 N.Y. 42, 50, 179 N.E. 253, 255). The rule is not, however, without exceptions and is primarily one of construction. Since the grantor has chosen to divest himself of all of his interest in the adjoining land, absent a declaration in the deed, he cannot be deemed to have intended to retain title in the street. Thus, this court has said that 'where the conveyance is of a lot abutting on a highway or where the descriptive lines run to or along such highway, the presumption is of an intent on the part of the grantor to convey title to the center of the highway' (Matter of City of New York, 209 N.Y. 344, 347, 103 N.E. 508, 509).

The presumption is not, however, inflexible and will yield to a showing in the deed of a contrary intent to exclude from the grant the bed of the street. Thus, when the deed describes the grant as starting at a corner of an intersection, and then running along parallel to or bounding on a street or streets to the beginning point, the grant is limited to the exterior line of the street (see, e.g., English v. Brennan, 60 N.Y. 609; White's Bank of Buffalo v. Nichols, 64 N.Y. 65; Kings County Fire Ins. Co. v. Stevens, 87 N.Y. 287; Deering v. Reilly, 167 N.Y. 184, 60 N.E. 447; Matter of City of New York, 209 N.Y. 344, 103 N.E. 508, Supra; Ann. 2 A.L.R. 6). Although the original deeds involved herein use the words bounded on Lydius Street, description is made by reference to the Van Alen map and does not contain an expression of intent similar to that found in the above-cited cases.

Descriptions in a deed are not, however, the only mode of rebutting the presumption that the grant carries to the center line. In Graham v. Stern, 168 N.Y. 517, 61 N.E. 891, it was observed by this court that where the original grantor is a municipality the usual rule of construction does not obtain. As the court wrote: 'There is an obvious and a material distinction between the case of a conveyance by an individual of lands bounded upon, or by, a street and that of a similar conveyance by municipal authorities. The presumption that obtains ordinarily in the one case, I think, should be regarded as offset in the other by another presumption,--that the municipality would not part with the ownership and control of a public street once vested in it for the public benefit. The city was the proprietor of these common lands, and they were mapped out for the municipal advantage, in their improvement by future grantees. There was an obvious purpose to subserve, when making grants of lands, in the retention of the ownership of the soil of the streets, which would be absent in the case of a grant by an individual. The municipality was vested with the fee in the soil of the streets and the trust attached that they should be held and kept open as public streets. It is altogether the sounder proposition, in my opinion, that the grant of title to property, bounded by or upon a city street, derived from the public authorities, in the absnece of any more definite description, carries only to the line of the street, inasmuch as in legal intendment the street was held as, and should remain, a public highway.' (Graham v. Stern, 168 N.Y. 517, 61 N.E. 891, Supra, at p. 523, 61 N.E. at p. 893; see, also, People ex rel. New York Cent. & Hudson Riv. R.R. Co. v. Priest, 206 N.Y. 274, 283, 99 N.E. 547, 550.)

Respondent, relying on Geddes Coarse Salt Co. v. Niagara, Lockport & Ontario Power Co., 207 N.Y. 500, 101 N.E. 456, Supra, argues that Graham is not a viable statement of the law. We disagree. Geddes dealt with a grant by the State and this court applied the rule that the conveyance of land abutting a highway carried the fee to the center line thereof. Inasmuch as Geddes did not deal with, as here, a municipal grantor, it is inapposite. As the dissenters at the Appellate Division noted, the 'marked distinction between a conveyance by a municipal corporation and one by the State has been recognized in case law (i.e., Paige v. Schenectady Ry. Co., 178 N.Y. 102, 111, 70 N.E. 213, 215; Gere v. McChesney (84 App.Div. 39, 41), 82 N.Y.S. 191, 192; Paige v. Schenectady Railway Co., 77 App.Div. 571, 79 N.Y.S. 266) and by authorities (5 Warren's Weed New York Real Property (4th ed.), p. 141; 6 N.Y.Jur., Boundaries, §§ 40, 41). This difference is not a mere coincidence but based on the fact that a city is the owner in fee of the streets and holds title thereto in trust for street purposes (Paige v. Schenectady Ry. Co., 178 N.Y. 102, 111, 70 N.E. 213, 215, Supra) whereas the State does not own streets as such (Cheney v. Syracuse, O. & N.Y. Ry. Co., 8 App.Div. 620, 40 N.Y.S. 1103, affd. 158 N.Y. 739, 53 N.E. 1123; Gere v. McChesney, Supra).' (City of Albany v. State of New York, 35 A.D.2d 881, 882, 315 N.Y.S.2d 727, 729.) Thus, unlike conveyances by an individual or by the State, this trust relationship could not be extinguished merely because Lydius Street was never developed as such. It never ceased to be of importance or benefit to the people of the city and prior to its taking by the State, the city could have required the country club to remove the encroaching portions of the golf course. As stated in Gere v. McChesney, 84 App.Div. 39, 41, 82 N.Y.S. 191, 192:

'The reason of these distinctions is that, as to an individual grantor,...

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