In a case determining what common elements were the responsibility of a common interest community, a Montclair, New Jersey Condominium lost its bid to force the town of Montclair to maintain and otherwise care for the water lines between the right-of-way along the public roads within the condominium, and the relevant shut-off valves.  Underground “curb boxes” house shut-off valves linking the main water line to the service lines which, in turn, are linked to each dwelling.  Typically, curb boxes are located on, or close to, public right-of-ways, and traditionally a municipality is responsible for the lines from the water main to the box while the property owner is responsible for the lines from the curb box to the dwelling.  As is far too often the case, this condominium’s developer mistakenly placed the curb boxes away from the right-of-way, onto the property of the owner.  The town of Montclair permitted this error during the development stage and had no inspection reports relating to same.

Years after the condominium’s development, the town of Montclair agreed to assume responsibility for the mains, sewer main and the fire hydrants on the condominium’s property.  The water service lines were neither discussed nor addressed in the resulting agreement between Montclair and the condominium.  The relevant Montclair ordinance provided that the “consumer is responsible for the service from the shut-off valve at the street to the structure, except for the meter, and that “such sanitary and water lines and service” were incorporated into Montclair’s “overall municipal delivery system of such utilities.”  Montclair argued that this ordinance was not intended to make itself responsible for the residential service lines.

The court first rejected the condominium’s assertion that, under the ordinance, Montclair was required to maintain pipes running between the main line and the curb box, regardless of where the curb box is.  Instead, the ordinance interpreted Montclair’s delineation as public and private land, not curb box location, etc..  The ordinance did not require that Montclair maintain its service lines up to the curb box without regard for the curb box’s location.

Lastly, the court rejected the condominium’s argument that public policy demanded Montclair be responsible for the Association’s water lines and the town’s failure to do so constituted unlawful discrimination.  The Association argued that Montclair provides water service and maintains water lines throughout the town, including the association’s property.  The condominium believed the term “services” included maintenance of water lines to the curb box.  The court, however, found that Montclair always had a consistent service policy of maintaining water lines up to the public/private property line, whereupon homeowners are responsible for any maintenance for common elements on their own land.  The court felt that while the public/private property line “normally coincides with the curb box” location, where “it does not, Montclair’s obligation terminates at the private property line.”

This case helps to further reiterate to New Jersey’s condominiums that municipalities are afforded broad discretion in their treatment of a private community’s infrastructure – and that the standard “public land versus private land” distinction is often validated by our courts.