New Jersey Appellate Division Holds Neighbors Can Enforce Deed Restrictions

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed summary judgment for plaintiffs who sought to enforce deed restrictions to prevent a neighbor from subdividing their property, despite the fact that the restrictions were not included in the deed to defendants. See Cherry v. Ziad Hadaya, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2571 (App. Div. Oct. 29, 2021).  Defendants own a plot of land on Jefferson Road in Princeton, New Jersey (“Lot 4”). Lot 4 was originally part of a 9.43-acre parcel that was conveyed in 1928. The 1928 deed contained some restrictions on the land conveyed including in pertinent part that: (1) frontage on Jefferson Road could not be subdivided into lots less than 100 feet wide by 200 feet deep; (2) frontage on adjoining Cuyler Road may not be subdivided into lots of less than 75 feet; and (3) frontage on Chestnut Street may not be subdivided into lots which are less than 50 feet wide. The 9.43 acres was later subdivided into 18 lots. In 2004, defendants purchased Lot 4, the only parcel in the deed-restricted area that abuts Jefferson Road, with about 150 feet on Jefferson.  The 2004 deed did not mention the aforementioned restrictions, although the prior deeds to Lot 4 did. In 2008, defendants applied to the Planning Board to subdivide Lot 4 into two lots, permitting a single-family house on each lot. The application was approved without consideration of the 1928 deed. The smaller of the resulting lots consisted of only 42.5 feet frontage on Jefferson Road. In 2015, defendants sought to subdivide the larger resulting lot into two more lots. While their application was pending, the plaintiffs, who owned neighboring properties, filed a complaint seeking to void the 2008 subdivision and to enjoin further subdivision based on the 1928 deed restrictions.

The Chancery Court first dismissed the claims of some of the plaintiffs for lack of standing because their land was not part of the 1928 deed subject to the restrictions.  Nonetheless, it found that other plaintiffs whose properties were within the 1928 deed chain of title could bring suit because the deed restrictions they were subject to evidenced clear intent to establish a neighborhood scheme.  With regard to the claims from those plaintiffs, the Court granted summary judgment, finding that the deed restrictions unambiguously prohibited the subdivision of lots with less than 100 feet abutting Jefferson Road.  In doing so, the Court held that the fact that the frontage requirements on other streets in the restricted area were not uniform (i.e., 75 feet on Cuyler Road and 50 feet on Chestnut) did not matter, because “[c]omplete uniformity . . . is not required, provided that restrictions vary in accordance with a design of the original grantor.”  Finally, the Court found that enforcement of the 1928 deed restrictions was reasonable, as the restrictions represented a reasonable plan to maintain the neighborhood. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed.  It agreed with the trial court on all counts, agreeing that defendants’ arguments as to the lot width requirements were strained and counter to the plain words of the 1928 deed, that the frontage limits are a key component of the character of a residential neighborhood, and that plaintiffs were among those intended to be incorporated into the neighborhood scheme.

For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at modonnell@riker.com, Michael Crowley at mcrowley@riker.com, Desiree McDonald at dmcdonald@riker.com, or Kevin Hakansson at khakansson@riker.com.