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Social obligation: The court’s new concept for landowners

by Scott Emerson
Senior Writer

The right to exclude others from private property is not what it used to be. That was the message recently delivered by Gregory Alexander, a prominent Cornell University land-use law professor and speaker for the Second Annual Wolf Family Lecture in the American Law of Real Property.

“U.S. courts are looking at the social responsibility of landowners to provide access for the health and sociability of the public,” Alexander said. “The state of New Jersey is taking the lead on this issue provoking new thoughts on private property and owners’ rights.”

Alexander explained that historically courts have ruled in favor of private landowners when challenged with land rights and access issues. But in 2005, the New Jersey Supreme Court narrowed the scope on private land ownership and broadened its view on social obligation.

“In its decision on Raleigh Avenue Beach Association v. Atlantis Beach Club, the court ruled that private, non-profit entities did not have unlimited rights to restrict public access,” Alexander said.

This ruling, based in part on an earlier NJ Supreme Court decision in Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Association (1984), takes into account the availability and need of public access.

“The landmark ruling in 2005 by the New Jersey Supreme Court could set precedence for other states,” Alexander concluded.

The Wolf Family Lecture in the American Law of Real Property series was endowed by a gift from UF Law Professor Michael Allan Wolf and his wife, Betty. Wolf, the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, is the general editor of a 17-volume treatise, Powell on Real Property, the most referenced real- property treatise in the country, which is cited regularly by the courts, including several citations in the United States Supreme Court. The treatise is a legal source that lawyers, law professors and judges have relied upon for more than 50 years.

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