Phx. Pinelands Corp. v. Davidoff

Decision Date29 April 2021
Docket NumberDOCKET NO. A-2823-16
Citation467 N.J.Super. 532,254 A.3d 1190
Parties PHOENIX PINELANDS CORPORATION, a New Jersey Corporation, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Harry DAVIDOFF, also known as Frederic Vail, Gideon Cranmer, James Nale, Administrator of the Estate of Gideon Cranmer, James Bodine and Cornelia C. Bodine, his wife, Job Corlis and Eliza Corlis, his wife, James Bodine, Cornelia Bodine, John Holmes and Emmor R. Wills, Administrator of the Estate of James Bodine, Cornelia Collins Holmes, Annie Holmes Bodine, Joseph Predmore, Adele Predmore, Marguerite Newton, Predmore Cox, Charles Roy Cox, Ellie Bodine Cox, Ella M. Clayton, Edgar Leslie Bodine, Alma Bodine Baker, Alma Bodine Baker Estate in Trust f/b/o Four Children of Charlotte Fielder Wade, Arthur Baker, Charlotte Fielder Wade, Benjamin Wade, Ellie Bodine, Joseph Rodgers Newton, Isabel Kinsell, Jessup Garron, Leon V. Garron, Edward C. Jessup, Marguerite Newton, Samuel Newton, Helen Newton, Nancy Jourdan, Donald Musser, Nicholas Newton, Ashton Bodine, Hattie E. Surran, Florence Newton McCall, Rachel Newton, Theodore L. Christopher, Cornelia Bodine, Harold Bodine, John R. Brinkerhoff, Isaiah Adams and Mary M. Adams, his wife, William A. Shepard, Nathan Hall, William A. Shepard and Caroline M. Shepard, his wife, Henry Shaw, Central Trust and Title Company by George H. Deller and H.M. Shaw, President, Meyer Beyer and Mathilda Beyer, Berman Herrman and Leon Kolmer, Sofie Herrman, Louisa Kolmer, George Orlov, Vera Orlov, Lydia Orlov, Victor Orlov, Martha Orlov, Jennie Orlov, Daisy Orlov, Raymond Orlov a/k/a Raymond Love, Elizabeth Orlov, Marie Orlov, Sam Gaines, Isaiah Adams, Meyer Beyer, Isadore Milkenstein and Rosa Milkenstein, Wolf Herskowitz, Samuel Shell, Louisa Schell, Samuel N. Schell, Samuel R. Schell, Anna Schell, William M. Schell, Marjorie Schell, William R. Schell, Denise Schell, Marianne Schell Kid, Eileen Schell Benkovic, Christopher Schell, Jacqueline Schell Gallo, William Schell, Michael Schell, Joshua W. Corlis, Lydia A. Cranmer, Harvey Corlis, Ellis Cranmer, Anna K. Acker and James R. Acker, h/w, Charles Russell, Helen Horn Lindgren, Edith Warren Kueppers and Robert Kueppers, her husband, Warren Stevens, Barbara R. Stevens, h/w, J&M Land Company, Charles DeSorte, Violet DeSorte, his wife, Barnegat Rifle and Pistol Club, Inc., Continental Searchers, Inc., Estate of Wolf Herskowitz, William Gibbs, trustee, Samuel Halpern and Paulina Halpern, his wife, Annie Saperstein and Harris Saperstein, her husband, Hyman Rosensohn, Bertha Boehm, Burlington Concrete Co., Mount Laurel Concrete Company, their heirs, devisees and personal representatives, and his, their or any of their successors in right, title and interest, unknown claimants, and their heirs, devisees and personal representatives, and his, their, or any other successors in right, title and interest, and First American Title Insurance Company, Defendants, and State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Jennifer L. Moriarty argued the cause for appellant (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Joan M. Scatton and Jennifer L. Moriarty, Deputy Attorneys General, on the briefs).

Michael R. O'Donnell, Morristown, argued the cause for respondent (Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP, attorneys; Michael R. O'Donnell, of counsel and on the brief; Jorge A. Sanchez, on the brief).

Before Judges Accurso, Vernoia and Moynihan.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

ACCURSO, J.A.D.

The State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection, appeals from a final judgment in this quia timet and ejectment action divesting it of its title to seven parcels of land in the Preservation Area of the Pinelands National Reserve, consisting of over 250 acres, and granting title to those properties to an adjoining landowner, plaintiff Phoenix Pinelands Corporation, operator of a grandfathered sand and gravel mine. Desirous of expanding its mining operation and believing the State would be "a reluctant seller," Phoenix made no attempt to purchase the State's lands. Instead, Phoenix mounted a surreptitious two-decade-long quest to undermine and cloud the State's title to the properties and establish its own competing chains of title. Phoenix spent over $1 million hiring searchers, surveyors, genealogists and lawyers to exploit potential defects in the State's titles that, regrettably, are not uncommon in land titles in the Pinelands. It tracked down putative heirs and purchased their fractional interests, sometimes for sums approximating actual value, by way of omnibus quitclaim deeds it drafted for the purpose.

Then, in an effort to establish a presumption of peaceable possession of the State's lands, the statutory prerequisite to a quiet title action, N.J.S.A. 2A:62-2, Phoenix, without notice to the State, presented the tax assessor for Little Egg Harbor Township with its newly drawn deeds and chains of title for the State's properties and asked to be allowed to pay taxes on them. Little Egg Harbor, also without notice to the State, and while continuing to accept the State's PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fees for the properties, redrew its tax map at Phoenix's behest, erasing the State's parcels and replacing them with a single lot and block designation listing Phoenix as the assessed owner. Phoenix then instituted this action in the Chancery Division seeking equitable relief in the form of the voiding of the State's recorded deeds.

Critically, Phoenix held no interest whatsoever in any of the State's seven properties when it began its quest to undermine the State's record title and divest it of ownership of all seven parcels. Those actions, which Phoenix readily owns, are anathema to the principles undergirding New Jersey's land title laws and brand it a "title raider," one "who seeks technical flaws in title in order to upset existing equities and clearly vested rights," Palamarg Realty Co. v. Rehac, 159 N.J. Super. 287, 297, 387 A.2d 1233 (App. Div. 1978), vacated on other grounds, 80 N.J. 446, 453, 404 A.2d 21 (1979), and in whose "activities" our courts "find no social value or contribution," O & Y Old Bridge Dev. Corp. v. Cont'l Searchers, Inc., 120 N.J. 454, 458, 577 A.2d 137 (1990) (citing Bron v. Weintraub, 42 N.J. 87, 95, 199 A.2d 625 (1964) ).

Phoenix's nefarious actions permit it no relief in a court of equity. And allowing this judgment to stand risks destabilizing marketable titles in the Pinelands and does not "best support and maintain the integrity of the recording system," Palamarg, 80 N.J. at 453, 404 A.2d 21. Phoenix also did not succeed in establishing its title to six of the seven parcels "free from all reasonable doubt," Shotwell v. Shotwell, 24 N.J. Eq. 378, 387 (Ch. 1874). We therefore reverse the judgment and remand for reinstatement of title to all seven properties in the State, imposing a constructive trust on the "title" Phoenix acquired in one of the State's parcels to which the State is equitably entitled on payment of the sum Phoenix expended in acquiring it, plus simple interest.

For ease of reference, we offer a guide to our opinion. We begin our discussion with a brief description of the Pinelands and the federal and State efforts to protect and preserve it, leading to the State's purchase of these seven parcels. We next detail Phoenix's efforts to locate and exploit defects in the State's titles, Phoenix's purchase of competing interests, and its successful effort to have the Little Egg Harbor tax map redrawn to erase the State's parcels and consolidate the lots under one lot and block listing itself as the assessed owner.

We then recap the history of the litigation, specifically addressing the 2013 order by which the first judge to handle the matter granted the State's motion to dismiss Phoenix's claim for quiet title but denied the State's motion to dismiss Phoenix's quia timet claim,1 and summarizing the second judge's two opinions vesting title to all seven properties in Phoenix. We next outline the parties' arguments on appeal. Finally, we address the law and apply it to the facts, which are now largely undisputed.

The Pinelands and the State's Purchase of the Properties

Congress established the 1,000,000-acre Pinelands National Reserve in the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-625, 92 Stat. 3492 (codified at 16 U.S.C. § 471i ), making the Pinelands the first natural resource to be protected under the "national reserve" program. See Gardner v. N.J. Pinelands Comm'n, 125 N.J. 193, 198-99, 593 A.2d 251 (1991). "A ‘wilderness’ of pine-oak forests and wild and scenic rivers, the Pinelands harbors a ‘wide variety of rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species.’ " Id. at 199, 593 A.2d 251 (quoting S. Energy and Env't Comm. Statement to S. 3091 (L. 1979, c. 111) (June 28, 1979) and John McPhee, The Pine Barrens 4-5 (1981)). It also "overlies the vast, seventeen-trillion gallon Cohansey aquifer, ‘one of the largest virtually untapped sources of pure water in the world.’ " Ibid. (quoting S. Energy and Env't Comm. Statement to S. 3091).

Declaring the protection and preservation of the Pinelands to be in the national interest, Congress in 1978 authorized federal funding to assist New Jersey in the development of a comprehensive plan for its management and for the acquisition of lands within the Pinelands National Reserve having "critical ecological values which are in immediate danger of being adversely affected or destroyed." 16 U.S.C. §§ 471i(b)(1) to (b)(3), (h)(1)(A). New Jersey enacted the Pinelands Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 13:18A-1 to -58, the following year, creating the Pinelands Commission to implement the law and assume primary responsibility for planning in the Pinelands, N.J.S.A. 13:18A-4.

In that Act, the Legislature singled out "a certain portion of the...

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