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Details, Details, Details, continued: When 1 + 1 Still Equals 1
March 24, 2010
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Back in November 2009, I highlighted five cases in which the Virginia Supreme Court granted appeals in Case Watch:  Upcoming Virginia Supreme Court Opinions.  The Virginia Supreme Court has recently published the opinion in the first of those cases, W&W Partnership v. Prince William County Board of Zoning Appeals, et al, Record No. 090328.

In this case, the Woodsides owned a piece of property that was over 46 acres. In 1940, they conveyed 1.44 acres to the Commonwealth of Virginia to extend Route 234, a public road, through their property. Route 234 bisected the property, leaving just over 5 acres to the north and about 40 acres to the south. The deed conveying the 1.44 acres contained a metes and bounds description of only the strip of land conveyed to the Commonwealth.

In 2000, the Woodsides conveyed their property to a church, which in turn conveyed the property to W&W Partnership. W&W subdivided and conveyed a portion of the 40 acres to the south of Route 234, leaving W&W with 15.3 acres total – 10.3 acres to the south, and 5.17 acres to the north. W&W sought a separate address and GPIN from Prince William County, claiming that the 5.17 acres of land constituted a separate, legally nonconforming lot created in 1940 by the Woodsides’ conveyance to the Commonwealth. The County denied this request, claiming that the Woodsides’ remaining property continued as one parcel with two noncontiguous pieces. Both the BZA and the Circuit Court sided with the County.

The Virginia Supreme Court followed the law set out in Chesterfield County v. Stigall, 262 Va. 697, 554 S.E.2d 49 (2001), which held that creation of a new lot

is a legal separation of property because it results from an action by the owner and involves, at a minimum, a change in the legal description of the property, either by a meets and bounds or by plat, which is duly recorded in the appropriate land records.

Stigall’s facts were very similar to the Woodsides’ situation, with a public road that bisected a lot and created two unequal sections. However, the Commonwealth acquired a portion of the property by way of eminent domain instead of voluntary conveyance in Stigall. The Court rejected W&W’s argument that this made any difference, holding that

the mere act of conveying property to the Commonwealth did not legally separate the noncontiguous portions of the Woodsides’ remaining property. Such legal separation of property must be shown by proof that the owner, at a minimum, duly recorded a change in the legal description of the property either by metes and bounds or by plat.

As I stressed in Details, Details, Details:  What it Takes to Convey an Easement in Virginia, this case yet again highlights that it’s all in the details. As with any real estate transactions, be sure to: (1) explain the parties’ intent precisely and specifically; (2) give details right in the deed – in this case by specific metes and bounds or by plat – and if you are relying on a separate document such as a plat, be sure to specify the plat in the deed itself and incorporate the plat by reference right in the deed; and (3) record all pertinent documents and attachments in the land records as soon as possible.