Township of Bloomfield v. 1101 Washington Street

Docket No. ESX-L-2318-05 (August 3, 2005) (Unpublished)

Chalk one up for the property owner in a case where a court dismissed a township’s complaint (without prejudice) and stopped a redevelopment project located in Bloomfield, New Jersey. However, stay tuned because the Township has appealed the decision to the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

This case is important for several reasons. First, two weeks before the condemnation action was filed, the property owner filed an action in Lieu of Prerogative Writ (separate lawsuit) to challenge the redevelopment plan. The Township filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the complaint in lieu of prerogative writ was filed too late. The court agreed with the Township and dismissed the prerogative writ action. However, despite the fact that the property owner filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ that was dismissed, the Superior Court nevertheless allowed the property owner to challenge the redevelopment plan at the time of taking (ie. in the condemnation action). There are now several law division cases that support the argument that a property owner can challenge a redevelopment plan when a condemnation action is filed. It is important to note thatr waiting until a condemnation action is filed to challenge a redevelopment plan may not be the best course of action since it is very important to get involved in the process at an early stage. The most beneficial time for involvement is at the time the municipality is undertaking the study to determine if an area is in need of redevelopment.

The second important aspect of this case is the trial court’s interpretation of the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (“LRHL”). The Township argued that the property qualifies for designation as an area in redevelopment under criteria (d) & (e) of the LRH, which require:

D – Areas with buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.

E – A growing lack or total of proper utilization of areas caused by the condition of the title, diverse ownership of the real property therein or other conditions, resulting in a stagnant or not fully productive condition of land potentially useful and valuable for contributing to and serving the public health, safety and welfare. (Emphasis added).

The court reviewed the LRHL and held that the Township must not only show that the property meets the description in criteria d & e, but there must be substantial evidence that the condition noted is detrimental to “the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community.” The trial court rejected the Township’s argument that proof of any of the enumerated conditions automatically constitutes proof of a detriment to the community. The court ultimately found that the record was devoid of any proof that the property is detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare. This case is important since it appears to be placing a new burden on a condemning authority seeking to redevelop property. Under this decision, the condemning authority must not only meet the criteria under the LHRL, but it must also specifically prove how those conditions affect the safety, health, morals or welfare of a community.

I believe this case will be a close call on appeal, and would not be surprised if the decision is reversed. I also believe many townships will consider this decision when adopting their own redevelopment plans and direct their planners to identify how the conditions affect the safety, health, morals or welfare of their community. However, older plans that have been on the books for a long time may be ripe for challenge under this causation challenge.