The Origins of Odd Lot Shapes

October 24th, 2013

prop-stripThe Times has a fun story of a 3′ x 500′ lot that runs through two dozen backyards in the affluent Murray Hill neighborhood of Queens. The lot, which had been owned by the city, will soon be put up for sale, where, presumably, property owners can buy the portion of the lot that crosses their land.

Why such a bizarrely-shaped lot?

The origins of odd lot shapes — like awkward triangles, long slivers and rectangles with sizable bites taken out — are usually a mystery to city administrators, though they are assumed to come from old surveying errors or ancient easements, which allow one to use another’s property.

While available city records do not say exactly how the public came to own this hidden ribbon of land, the city once owned thousands of formerly private properties, taken over from owners who neglected to pay their taxes. Many buildings accumulated during the city’s economic crisis of the 1970s have since been sold off, but the city is still working through the backlog; some of the land may have been on the city’s books since the 19th century. Each property must be appraised, no matter how tiny or evidently useless, and submitted to a lengthy review process, so progress is not swift.

A catalog of city-owned properties sold at auction last year included a crooked 20-foot-by-21-foot nubbin of a lot, accessorized by a forest of weeds and a large Budget truck parked askew. A long, skinny vacant lot in Far Rockaway, accompanied by an ominous warning that “all or part of this parcel may be part of a tidal wetland.” There was also a triangular shaped property that did indeed look as if it was being lovingly maintained as part of somebody’s private garden.

But you ask. What about adverse possession? Wouldn’t the people using it for all those years have a claim of adverse possession, or perhaps a prescriptive easement? Assuming you can adversely possess against the government (you can’t in New York), a claim of right would be lacking. None of the homeowners even knew this lot existed.