Giving Away Our Store

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

If you were deep in debt, would you give away a steady source of income that requires no effort? I doubt you would!

But that’s exactly what the state of New Jersey will do if a bill quietly making its way through the Legislature – S130/A2054, known as the “Adverse Possession Bill” – becomes law. It’s hard to believe this bill is being proposed while the state faces a billion dollar budget deficit.

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The legislation would require New Jersey to give away thousands of state-owned acres to private parties – lands that now generate more than $10 million in annual revenues. In addition, the bill would make it easier for trespassers to claim ownership of land through adverse possession, also known as squatter’s rights, including properties preserved as open space by non-profit conservation groups.

Here’s how it would work:
All properties that fall below the mean high tide water line, or previously fell below mean high tide prior to human disturbance, legally belong to the state and are commonly known as “riparian lands.”  The state Department of Environmental Protection owns and administers these properties.

In many instances, homes were built on filled riparian lands before state laws prohibited building there. When these pre-existing homes change hands, the state gets paid for the land it owns.

Revenue generated by these “riparian grants” adds up to about $10 million per year. The funds are dedicated for public education. Between 1995 and 2008, $170 million was collected by the state.

The bill would give away these filled riparian lands for free to anyone who has occupied them without state permission for 40 years, eliminating the need for – and potential income from – riparian grants.  In addition to being poor policy, and fiscally irresponsible, this bill may constitute an unconstitutional divestment of publicly owned assets.

The bill also would make it easier for trespassers or squatters to claim ownership of private properties through adverse possession.
For instance, if your neighbor illegally builds a driveway through a corner of your property and you do nothing to assert your property rights, eventually the land would no longer belong to you.

The proposed legislation would reduce the amount of time that a property must be occupied by the trespasser: from 60 years to 30 years for vacant, undeveloped lands, and from 30 years to 20 years for developed lands.
While there are protections in the bill for publicly-owned properties like parks, there are no similar protections for lands held by non-profit groups – even lands preserved with public open space preservation funding!

With all our state’s financial difficulties, this bill should not see the light of day!  Contact your state legislators and the bill sponsors, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Assemblyman Upendra J. Chivukula and Senator Nicholas Scutari. Tell them not to support S130/A2054. To find your local legislators, go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp .

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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