NJ Municipality’s Implied Acceptance of a Private Lane as a Public Road Requires Actions Consistent with Ownership or Evidencing Intent to Treat the Lane as Dedicated to Public Use

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed the Chancery Division’s determination that a municipality only impliedly accepts a private lane as a public road if it takes actions consistent with ownership or that otherwise evidence an intent to treat the land as dedicated to public use.

In Holloway v. McManus, et al., an unpublished decision, an applicant sought to subdivide his property, which had access solely by way of a 25 foot wide unimproved dirt and gravel lane running across the McManus defendants’ land, into 13 residential lots. In connection with this application, the applicant requested the Township of Jackson provide permanent access to the property by declaring the unimproved lane a public road. The unimproved lane was depicted on a number of public documents, including: (i) a 1974 survey, which showed the path as a 10 to 12 foot “sand road”; (ii) the Township’s tax maps, which indicated the lane was a 25 foot “utility access easement”; and (iii) a 2002 subdivision map, submitted to the Township by another non-party development, which showed the path as a 25 foot “dirt and gravel utility access easement to be dedicated to [the] Township,” which was referenced in the legal description of the McManus defendants’ deed to their property.

Nearby landowners, including the McManus defendants, objected to the application, voicing concerns that the unimproved private lane had become a nuisance because of considerable erosion emanating from the lane. In response to the application, the Township engineer issued a letter confirming that the lane was an unimproved private road, a “substandard access easement” to the applicant’s property, and consequently finding that it would be against the Township’s interests to accept it as a public road, as development of it “would only benefit the [applicant’s] interests.” Ultimately, the Zoning Board partially-granted the application, approving the subdivision for eight lots but requiring the applicant “to clarify the right to access to his property.”

The applicant filed suit alleging that the unimproved lane was offered for dedication through its use and inclusion in the 2002 subdivision map and McManus deed, and that the Township had impliedly accepted the offer by exercising dominion and control over the lane through affirmative acts including grading, snow removal, inclusion of the path on its tax maps, and by filing the 2002 subdivision map. The Chancery Division agreed that the land had been offered for dedication, but disagreed that the Township had impliedly accepted the offer. The court noted that implied acceptance requires the Township to take actions “consistent with ownership,” and mere grading, plowing, and inclusion of the path on the Township’s tax maps were insufficient to establish an implied acceptance under this standard. The court did, however, hold that the applicant could continue to have a right to access his property over the access easement, and the right to maintain it “as it currently exists.” On appeal, the Appellate Division deferred largely to the Chancery Division’s findings in affirming its decision under R. 2:11-3(e)1)(E), emphasizing that while a municipality may impliedly accept an offer of dedication by official conduct that manifests an intent to treat the land as dedicated to public use, and the facts here did not manifest such an intent.

This decision begins to draw the line between what official actions do and do not evidence an implied acceptance by a municipality. It is clear that mere maintenance of a private land by a municipality, such as grading and snow removal, are insufficient to establish that the municipality has impliedly accepted it as a public roadway. Additional actions, such as installing signage, lighting, water and sewer improvements, and routine road upkeep, as noted in the Appellate Division’s brief comments on the matter, are required in order to evidence an intent to treat the lane as dedicated to public use.