Dec
06
2018

TURNING A “PAPER STREET” INTO PAPER DEED: DO YOU OWN ADJOINING PROPERTY AND NOT EVEN REALIZE IT?

Do you have rights to a paper street that would entitle you to ownership of an adjoining property and not even realize it? With the rise to prominence of subdivisions in developing areas, such as State College, comes a plethora of unique legal issues. In particular, the law has been asked to deal with not only balancing the issues that arise with the lots that exchange hands and change over time, but also with how to handle portions of the subdivisions that are abandoned or never develop as planned.

One of these prominent issues that our firm has handled with success is how to deal with so-called “paper streets” in subdivision plans. A “paper street” is a common name for a road, street, or alley that is plotted in a subdivision plan, but then for whatever reason is never opened by the municipality or lot owners. As a result, they often become overgrown or used as lawns, and lot owners do not realize that they even exist until they sell or survey their properties. Sometimes they are discovered after reviewing subdivision plan, or more likely, when a dispute arises with a neighbor.

Pennsylvania law has evolved over time to deal with these issues and many of the cases are unique in nature and turn on the facts at hand. The law starts with the Act of 1889[1], which states that when such streets or roadways are plotted in subdivision plans, the public (generally the municipality or adjoining landowners) has twenty-one years to open the roads; otherwise, they must obtain the consent of the adjoining lot owners to do so.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has since held that, per the Act of 1889, any paper street that is not opened within twenty-one years revert back to the adjoining landowners, so long as their Deeds call for the street as a boundary.[2] This means that title to the street passes to the adjoining landowners to the center of the street. If the paper street is, for instance, a forty-foot right-of-way, you would take title to the twenty feet adjoining your lot, and your neighbor would take title to the twenty-feet adjoining their lot. The law recognizes that if the land were not plotted as a street in the first place, it likely would have been included in the landowners’ Deeds. You and possibly your neighbors, could be entitled to more land than you initially anticipated when you purchased your lot(s).

These scenarios are not without their possible roadblocks and speedbumps. As noted above, these cases largely turn on the character of the road and the timing of the transfers involved due to the possibility that one lot owner may have adversely possessed all or a portion of the paper street through their usage over time. The Supreme Court has held that, unless those rights are extinguished, in most instances the other lot owners in the subdivision may retain easement rights over the paper streets for use to access their lots. These scenarios require a careful attention to detail and knowledge of what issues to look for in order to evaluate the best course of action.

The attorneys at The Mazza Law Group, P.C. have successfully handled these cases and the difficulties that accompany them. With their knowledge of the process and how best to approach each unique scenario, they are fully prepared to take the action necessary to obtain any additional land that could be yours. Call us today for a consultation and to determine your rights to any adjoining paper street, including your rights to ownership of or access over those streets, or any other issues you may have in your subdivision.

[1] See 36 P.S. § 1961

[2] This is subject to one other caveat: If the Grantor of the subdivision expressly reserved the right to the street in the Deeds, then the land would revert back to the Grantor’s ownership. However, in most circumstances, this is not the case as it would leave the Grantors with a strip of land of varying length but minimal width with little use for building or cultivating.