CHAINS, LINKS, AND GAVELS
THE SURVEYOR IN THE COURTROOM
by Norman J. Van Valkenburgh
Not every property line and ownership dispute ends up in a court of law but some do. Getting there can be a long, tedious, complicated and costly process involving judges, juries, attorneys, witnesses—some expert and some not—and other diverse characters who may or may not comprehend what it’s all about. Sit in the witness chair with
Norm Van Valkenburgh, a land surveyor who has been there, and experience “a day in court.”
From the preface by Keith LaBudde, President, The Shawangunk Conservancy:
Norman Van Valkenburgh presents here a detailed discussion of two land disputes that ended up in the courts, and how in both cases the court system failed. The facts of both cases are complex, which may account at least in part for outcomes that seem to ignore these very facts. From his presentation of these cases we also get a picture of Norm the surveyor, the consummate professional. This is a man who cares deeply about the quality of the work he does. He wants there to be no question about where a particular piece of property is, and in pursuit of this objective, he digs tirelessly for the facts.
As president of the non-profit organization that was a party to the second lawsuit Norm discusses, I am familiar with the effort Norm puts into the research that precedes the on-the-ground survey. I have observed how one “fact” that doesn’t fit sends him off on further searching to ensure that he truly understands the ownership picture. I have seen evidence of Norm’s research in copies of old, hand-written, property tax records that he used to track down a chain of title. In one instance he was able to trace title in spite of a series of errors that clerks made when manually transcribing owners’ names, the kind of errors that becomes critical when property is described by abutting owners.
Imagine, then, how discouraging it must be to have, on two different occasions, the court ignore your careful research. Granted, the issues in both cases were complex. In our lawsuit, the very complexity of the issues had caused us to forgo a jury trial because we thought that laypersons would be unable to understand the evidence. We elected instead to go with a bench trial (the judge also renders the verdict), in hopes that someone familiar with land disputes would be able to comprehend the issues. It turned out to be wishful thinking on our part. The judges could not, or would not, look at the facts.
In Norm’s discussion of the first dispute he notes, ”The court accepted evidence favoring the defendants, threw out much of that favoring the plaintiff, and obscured the rest.” That statement applies equally well to the dispute in which our organization was involved. It probably was naive of me to think that judicial decisions are rendered on the basis of fact. It’s not that I was unaware of the number of convictions that have recently been overturned on the basis on DNA evidence. But those were criminal cases, and the fact that a wrong verdict was reached could probably be traced to over-zealous police and prosecutorial work—or so I thought. This was a dispute over ownership of land. All that should be necessary was to present the facts, and the correct verdict should be obvious. Not so. The idea that “justice is blind” has certainly taken on a new meaning for me.
Norm ends his discussion of our case with the Ulster County Supreme Court decision of 2001, but that was not the end of the story. The decision was appealed in 2002 and the lower court’s decision was upheld. After spending much time, money, and energy, our organization had to confront the fact that land it had bought to protect was now likely to be developed and that the public’s view of a pristine ridge would be forever destroyed. What is particularly painful is the knowledge that even though the facts were on our side, they seemed to mean nothing in the face of a court system that chose—for whatever reason—to ignore them.
What lessons have we learned from this? Pretty much the same ones Norm points out at the end of his discussion of the first case. First and foremost, if your attorney is not local, at least include someone local on your team. We’ve been told that we were the victims of the local “old boy network.” Our counsel was very competent but not local, whereas our opponents had retained local counsel. Other parties involved in land disputes with the very same individuals we opposed have taken note of this lesson.
One further lesson is to realize that with the current method of settling land disputes, one can not assume that the decision will favor you simply because the facts do. It all comes back to the question Norm raises of whether the existing court system is the proper way to resolve land disputes, whether the individuals sitting in judgment are truly capable of understanding the facts in complex land disputes. The answer would appear to be “no.”
Norman J. Van Valkenburgh, a licensed surveyor and 32-year veteran of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, has written extensively about the Catskills and Adirondacks. He is the author of four acclaimed mysteries featuring surveyor-sleuth Ward Eastman: Murder in the Catskills, Mischief in the Catskills, Mayhem in the Catskills, and Murder in the Shawangunks, and a booklet on the forest preserve in the Catskills and Adirondacks and, recently, Old Stone Walls: Catskill Land and Lore all published by Purple Mountain Press.
109 pages, 5.5 x 8.5, 2005
$12.50 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original
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