Mount Laurel Township v. Mipro Homes, L.L.C., et. al.

On August 2, 2005, the Appellate Division handed down its decision in Mount Laurel Township v. Mipro Homes, L.L.C., et. al. 379 N.J.Super. 358 (2005), which addressed the propriety of using the powers of eminent domain solely for the purpose of stopping future development. In this case, a municipality added a 16.3-acre parcel to its recreation and open space plan after discovering that the landowner intended to develop the site with new housing. The municipality first attempted to purchase the subject lands by negotiating with the landowner and, after all such efforts failed, proceeded to condemn the site. When the municipality sought to acquire the subject property by eminent domain, the zone in which the said lands were located had not been designated as open space in the municipal master plan. Actually, just two weeks before the start of condemnation proceedings the municipal planning board had granted to the landowner final subdivision approval for the construction of 23 single-family homes.

The Appellate Division first addressed the issue of whether a municipality lacks authority to condemn private property for open space if the zone in which the property is located is not designated as open space in the master plan. The court framed the answer to this question by stating that a municipality’s eminent domain power is separate from its zoning power, and that “[t]he statutes authorizing acquisition of land for open space establish separate administrative procedures designed to assure that a municipality’s open space program reflects sound planning.” Mipro Homes, 379 N.J. Super. at 369. The court further noted that, in this case, the municipality had obtained a grant for the acquisition of the subject property under the Green Acres Program, “[w]hich reflects a finding . . . that the Mipro site is suitable for open space acquisition.” Ibid. at 370. The court, therefore, concluded on this issue that the municipal governing body “[h]ad authority to condemn the Mipro site for open space even though the master plan did not then identify open space as a planned use in the area where it is located.” Ibid. at 370.

The Appellate Division then went on to answer two additional questions. One of these was whether an action to condemn property for open space may be maintained even if the municipality’s motive in selecting particular properties for acquisition is to slow down residential development. The other related question was whether a municipality may exercise this authority notwithstanding the municipality’s lack of a plan to devote such lands to an active recreational use. In crafting its response, the court first affirmed a municipality’s general authority under current law to acquire property by eminent domain for open space and recreational purposes. The court then answered the second question first by stating “that the conservation of land for open space is a public use, even though the government agency acquiring the land has no plans to put the property to any active use.” Ibid. at 373.

Finally, the Appellate Division went on to address “the primary issue presented by this appeal” and determined that the acquisition of open space for the express purpose of stopping development is a legitimate public purpose. According to the court, such “statutory enactments” as the Garden State Preservation Act, N.J.S.A. 13:8C-1, et. seq., “recognize that open space acquisition may serve the public interest not only by setting aside land for potential future recreational use but also by preventing development.” Ibid. at 374. (emphasis supplied). The court in Mipro Homes further developed its rationale for this holding as follows:

We conclude that even if the primary goal of . . . [the] open space acquisition program in general, and the condemnation of the Mipro site in particular, is to slow down residential development in the municipality, this does not provide a foundation for finding that the municipality’s use of eminent domain for this purpose constitutes fraud, bad faith or manifest abuse. [The municipality] had a reasonable basis for concern that additional residential development would aggravate traffic congestion and pollution problems in the municipality and impose added stress on its school system and other municipal services. . . . Moreover, although [the municipality’s] governing body had made a policy decision to focus in its open space acquisition program upon parcels that are likely to be the subject of residential development, the properties it acquires under the program nevertheless serve the public purpose of preserving open space.
Ibid. at 375-376.

The court in Mipro Homes hinted that if the subject property had been approved for a medical rehabilitation center, nursing facility or some other inherently beneficial use it might have reached a different result. Notwithstanding this potential limitation on the scope of its ruling, the court’s distortion of the public use doctrine in Mipro Homes is unnerving, and could open the floodgates to unplanned (as well as emotionally and politically driven) land acquisitions by municipal governing bodies.