To my great concern I heard the other day that the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund, which funds our roads and bridges, will run out of money on June 30th, 2016. We have an outstanding debt service of over $30 billion dollars. It got me to thinking about roads and how we got here.
Over 350 years ago the Wild West began at the NJ shoreline. The only roads were those foot paths forged by 10,000 years of Native American traffic (remember the Lenape didn't have horses or the wheel). But in 1682, just 16 years after the English settled our State, the Proprietory Assembly passed "An Act for making and settling highways, passages, landings, bridges and ferries within this province." A rather progressive move.
That law and the subsequent amendments thereto set up a simple system for creating roads. Certain major roads or King's Highways like Route 27 were created by specific legislation, but the vast majority of the roads were created by appointed Commissioners or Surveyors of the Highways.
In the beginning, when there were few inhabitants any freeholder (landowner) could petition the Commissioners to lay out a road from their property to the nearest existing road, landing or navigable watercourse. This would require charting a course over other people's properties for the purpose of a "publick road." There was no compensation paid to the property owners. In fact, the Commissioners appointed Overseers who would draw a work party from the Inhabitants of the municipality and would make sure that they turned out to help build the road. If they shirked their responsibility they would be severely fined. It was a community effort reminiscent of a barn raising. So a person might be called upon to construct a road across their own property, and the petitioners would be responsible for the continued maintenance of the road..
I believe that this precedence is the reason why, in land title today, the Courts have held, time and again, dating back hundreds of years, that "The title to the soil and freehold, over which a highway is laid, is presumed to be in the owners of the adjoining land, until the contrary is shown."
The bed of every "highway" was at one point owned in fee by someone before the shovels or bulldozers arrived to cut the road. The dedication of the road for public use did not defeat the fee simple ownership of that road. There are of course exceptions to the rule; express grants to or condemnation by the City, County or State, or Marginal roads within a development.
So we are, most of us, the fee title holder to the street in front of our houses, to the centerline, and yet we rely upon the government to tend that property in every way for the advantage of a safe and secure roadway system.
And now we find ourselves running out of money to take care of those very same roads.. Don't be surprised if you get a visit from the Overseers in the near future, putting you on a road gang and handing you a shovel. It may be our only answer. After all it is our land.
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking before the NJ Society of Professional Land Surveyors in Atlantic City on February 5th at their annual conference SurveyCon. These are men and women that we in the title industry rely upon to properly define the boundaries of the land titles we insure. They are responsible for manifesting the essence of our purpose. Surveying is not only a science but very much an art; rendering an often rectangular description of an actual curved section of the earth requires deep math and even deeper understanding of the harmony of property boundaries.
Having once been a partner in a surveying firm for ten years, I was given the unique vantage point of a title man with an inside look at how the sausage is made. Believe me it is much more complicated than one might think. I invite you all to spend a day with a surveyor "in the field," it is an education.
I went to speak to the surveyors at the request of Thomas Howell. He is the Surveyor General for the West Jersey Board of Proprietors, the only proprietory faction still in existence in New Jersey today. In 2005 they deposited all their original records with the New Jersey State Archives in order to be preserved in an environmentally controlled and secure location. (You would be surprised how many of our historic documents have been pilfered over the years) These records are the foundation of the titles that the industry insures today. They are invaluable and need to be preserved in posterity.
However, they are of little use hidden in a dusty box in the basement of the Archives and it is Tom Howell's vision to make them accessible digitally. This is a considerable undertaking and one that I will be revisiting in the coming months, when I will share further plans for preservation and publication. Stay Tuned.
I came across this map that explains quite a bit. How many times have we in the title business seen restrictions in deeds that prohibit "bone boiling, blast furnaces, vitriol, soap making, turpentine, dynamite and tanning." It might occur that "Why would anyone ever want to do that?" and "Why do they have to specifically prohibit it?" Well the map above and others found online in places like the New York Public Library (digitalcollections.nypl.org) provide a unique insight into life a century ago. These maps show where the stables, fat melting, slaughter houses, gut cleaning, hide curing and Brewing took place. What would be considered "nuisances" by anyone. Interestingly they appear to have been closer to the East and Hudson Rivers and further from the Reservoir. Thank God! Although it probably didn't do much good for the rivers and the general health of the citizens. On a map entitled Sanitary and Social Chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York in 1864, there are designated the locations of Shanties, Privies, Privies in extremely offensive condition, Liquor stores or Drinking Places, Typhus & Small Pox, Sewers (Open) and the thoroughly offensive "Sailors Boarding House!" These "Nuisances" were the result of American entrepreneurship, the cottage industries conducted in the back yard by Mom and the children, while Dad was off working 14 hours days in the factory, six days a week. And small businesses which were established to serve the local citizenry. In an age before refrigeration, you didn't want to live too far from the slaughter house. Not if you wanted fresh meat. These maps and those restrictions operate as a window into our past. Giving us all an opportunity to gauge our current existence against our ancestors.
I am very excited to share my new website with the world! Feel free to take a moment and look around at the information I have provided for you! I am passionate about many things in life but land records and uncovering the mysteries that lie in them is a great love of mine. In my free time I enjoy being on my boat with friends and family, sitting down to a great new book or exploring the beautiful countryside of America. I plan on travelling back to Europe in the near future and visiting the homesteads of my ancestors. I hope you enjoy your time here and check back with me as I will be posting frequently about interesting information, local speaking engagements, fun historical facts and other news from my side of the desk! Enjoy!
Newsworthy stories or information I enjoy sharing with you!