Over the years we have had numerous matters involving “Paper Streets” in various counties all across the street.
What is a Paper Street? This type of street is a product of the times before municipalities enacted Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances. At that time a landowner would simply have an engineer prepare a survey of his or her property and then lay out lots, streets and alleys. Not every lot was built upon and not every street or alley was opened and improved. After the streets or alleys were shown on a plan and after either the plan was recorded or a lot shown on the plan sold, public and private rights were created as a matter of law in each of the streets or alleys.
Let’s start with the public rights. By virtue of the recording of the plan or sale of a single lot, the local municipality obtained the right to improve or open the street or alley and hold it as a public street. No condemnation was necessary. There was a catch. The municipality had 21 years to improve the area, or all public rights evaporated. When the public rights evaporate, the title line of the adjoining lots MOVES to the center line of the proposed street or alley, subject to private rights.
Private rights are different from public rights. EVERY owner of EVERY lot shown on the plan creating the streets or alleys retained the right to use the street or alley. Because some of these streets existed only on the survey or recorded plan, they became known as paper streets. These private rights exist even though a particular owner’s lot may be 3 or 4 blocks away from the paper street. For this reason, any time a person owning land next to a paper street wants to make a claim to the street, they must name as a mandatory party EVERY owner of EVERY lot shown on the plan. If they cannot readily find the plan, they have to keep looking by searching title to every lot in the area until they trip on the first lot out of a common owner.
Paper streets are sometimes not logical. We recently dealt with one in Shaler Township, Allegheny County. The street probably looked good on a flat piece of paper. In the real world, the street dropped down a cliff onto Route 8. The same thing occurs across the state. Fortunately, modern subdivision ordinances are preventing the creation of new paper streets.
What do you do if you have a paper street or alley behind your house? First of all, you have the right to record a deed from yourself to yourself, moving the lot line to the middle of the paper street. But what if you want to block off or terminate the private rights of your neighbors? Our Courts have held that it is not easy to do this. Generally, you need to prove a act by each holder of the private rights which indicates an intent by that person to terminate their own rights. Absent that, you need to do something to absolutely block the paper street.
Is a fence or garden enough? Our appellate courts have said no. So, what does work? We had a case in Chester County where we represented a church with a paper alley separating the church building from a buildable area to the rear. We wanted to make the termination of private rights clear. Since the issuance of a building permit may not be denied for title issues, our client built an addition to the church across the entire alley. It was constructed in a manner that the portion on the alley could be removed if a neighbor raised a fuss. No when raised a fuss until more than 21 years later when one neighbor wanted to open the alley and put in a garage. OOOPS. She was too late. In another case a client was successful because they had created a blockage using Jersey Barriers.
We have one now in Lebanon County. A property owner sought to claim that by mowing the lawn on the paper street and only paving part of it, he had obtained title by adverse possession. The Court ruled that he did have title absolutely and that the Order did not interfere with easement rights. The problem is the title records. A Court Order granting a party title in the paper street would generally be interpreted by the public (and a prospective buyer) as terminating private rights. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits this result, but there is nothing in the public record to avoid litigation over this issue. We were brought in to handle the appeal to the Superior Court.
Lower Merion Township, in Montgomery County, is riddled with paper streets. While there has been some litigation over these streets, most has been avoided because of the number of parties one would be forced to name in litigation.