In Ettinger v. Oyster Bay II Community Property Owners’ Association, in a boundary dispute between a landowner and a property association, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that a deed describing the conveyance as having a road as a boundary conveys all rights of the grantor to the center of the road, unless a contrary intent is shown. Op. at 3. The deed’s reference to a survey was insufficient to show a contrary intent, and although the deed indicated a square footage that excluded the area of the road, the Court held that square footage was the least certain mode of describing land, which “must yield to a description by boundaries and distances.” Op. at 5.
A copy of the opinion is available here.
The dispute arose between a landowner and a neighborhood property association (the “Association”), concerning rights to a certain neighborhood road, which Landowner relied upon for access, and which he sought to use for development of his parcel. Both Landowner and the Association’s rights derived from a common grantor. Landowner’s deed which predated the Association, described his parcel as containing 196,670 square feet, as shown in a certain subdivision plat, and further indicated that the parcel was “bounded on the Northeast, by Hibiscus Drive”, the disputed road.
After Landowner cleared his parcel for development, the Association erected a construction fence and posted no trespassing signs. Landowner thereafter filed the present lawsuit seeking a declaration that he held title to the centerline of the road. The trial court disagreed, holding that his deed’s reference to the square footage (which excluded the area of the road) and subdivision plat, indicated that Landowner only received title to the edge of the road. Landowner appealed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed, entering judgment in his favor.
The Supreme Court held that the description in the deed as “bounded on the Northeast by Hisbiscus Drive” places the case within the established rule that “a conveyance of land bounded by or along a way carries title to the center of the way, unless a contrary intent is shown.” Op. at 3.
The Court explained that the rule “is based on grounds of public convenience, and to prevent disputes as to the precise boundaries of property.” Op. at 4. Such rule is based upon the equitable legal fiction that “when the road was originally formed, the proprietor on either side contributed a portion of his land for the purpose,” and is bolstered by “the lack of practical benefit to the grantor to justify a construction of intent to retain title to the strip of land.” Op. at 4 (citations omitted). “If the description were presumed to stop at the near edge of the road, it would leave a narrow strip of land (from the edge of the road to the midpoint) in the hands of the grantor. If, at some later date, the road were vacated, the original grantor would be able to return and claim the strip regardless of the interests or access needs of the grantee.” Op. at 5 (citing Powell on Real Property 81A.05[i][i] (2018).
Thus, given the rule’s twin goals of limiting unnecessary litigation and protecting a grantee’s right of access, the Court determined that “the Association’s decision to erect the fence is precisely the sort of act the rule is designed to prevent.” Op. at 5.
The Court rejected arguments that a contrary intent was shown by reference to the square footage of the lot, which excluded the area of the road. According to the Court, “quantity designations are “regarded as the least certain mode of describing land, and hence must yield to description by boundaries and distances.” Op. at 5-6.
The Court also rejected the Association’s argument that an intent only to covey to the edge of the road (and not to the centerline) was shown by reference to a recorded subdivision plat, depiction of survey lines. “This position,” the Court explained, “confuses the common practice of referring to survey plats to augment a deed’s property description with an express statement of contrary intent.” Op. at 6. “When a deed describes a lot by reference to a survey plat depicting a street as a boundary, the rule applies and the deed conveys title to the center of that street. A mere reference to the plat does not constitute evidence of contrary intent.” Op. at 6-7. The Court also noted that the subdivision plat itself depicted a line running along the center of road, which was consistent with a grant to the center of the road.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s ruling, and entered final judgment for Landowner.