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.
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