LAYTON, N.J. (AP) A rutted dirt road that once carried American troops on their way to fight the British in the Revolutionary War became a different sort of battleground when the federal government sued two New Jersey couples who blocked the road where it traversed their property.
Eighteen months later, a settlement is imminent in a case that has rekindled memories of more recent clashes in the picturesque Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area over an abandoned federal dam project.
The lawsuit was dismissed Sept. 8 by a federal judge in Newark, N.J., who gave the parties 60 days to finalize terms. William Ward, an attorney representing Matthew, Michelle and Aaron Hull, said the government had agreed to pay $115,000 to the families for access to the 500-yd.-long, 16-ft.-wide stretch of road.
“The enormity of being in a lawsuit like this has been overwhelming for all of us,” Michelle Hull said. “We’re all very excited to move on with our lives and focus on our families.”
Matthew and Aaron Hull, brothers whose roots in Sussex County go back nearly a century, and their wives, Michelle and Bonnie, bought the 130-acre property in 2007. Both couples have small children.
Their goal: To fix up the historic farmhouse on the property, grow vegetables and “just enjoy life,” said Aaron Hull, who along with his brother works in the construction business.
Putting up the gates was not intended to be a provocative move, Michelle Hull said, but instead a defense against trespassers and hunters.
The park service viewed things differently, however, and claimed that the portion of Old Mine Road that runs through the Hull property was a public way. The federal lawsuit claimed the Hulls “severely disrupted and hindered the ability of National Park Service employees from performing their duties.”
Worse, Michelle Hull said, was the threat that if they prevailed in the title dispute over the road, the government would condemn the entire property and take it over.
“If we won the title issue, it was made very clear to us that the next step was condemnation,” she said. “We didn’t feel like we had any other options.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment until the settlement is finalized.
Old Mine Road is considered one of the oldest roads in the United States and dates back to when Dutch miners in the mid-17th century transported copper ore alongside the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania.
More recently, the Hull property figured prominently in the bitter dispute over the Tocks Island project, a government plan in the 1960s and 70s to build a dam in the Delaware River that met with such resistance from locals that it was eventually scrapped — but not before hundreds of homes and families were bought out to make room for the project.
The Hull property was owned for several decades by Enos “Cy” Harker, a farmer who gained renown for his rock-ribbed refusal to sell to the government during the Tocks Island dispute and later when the area became part of the 70,000-acre Water Gap.
The staunchly independent Harker died in 2006 at 93 when the tractor he was riding turned over on him. The next year, the Hulls, who had known him most of their lives, bought the land for about $1 million from his heirs.
As often happens, the lawsuit turned on the small details.
The Hulls produced a 1988 resolution from the local township that vacated its claim on the road and reverted it to the adjoining property owners. The government produced a 1989 deed between the township and the park service that turned out not to have been officially recorded until after the Hulls moved in, said Liz Gallaway of Mountain States Legal Foundation, who represented the Hulls.
“They had done a title search to make sure they owned the whole thing, and nothing came up showing they did not own this whole property,” Gallaway said. “They did what they were supposed to do. The feds aren’t crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s.”