On March 31, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided Toll Bros. v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, which principally held that a developer may seek to modify or reform an off-tract improvements obligation in a developer’s agreement when the project to which such obligation relates has changed.  By ruling in this fashion, the Supreme Court took a practical and equitable stand in resolving the problems that developers and property owners face when things just don’t work out as planned.

The facts of Toll Bros, like all cases, are of importance to understanding fully the context of the instant controversy and the breadth of the Supreme Court’s decision.  Briefly, the developer in this case – Toll Brothers, Inc. – acquired a parcel of land in foreclosure with municipal and county approvals and, thereafter, entered into developer’s agreements with Burlington County and Moorestown Township to memorialize its agreement to complete certain off-tract roadway improvements, which the local planning board and the county planning board had required as a condition of the approvals applicable to the Toll Brothers property and a smaller, adjacent parcel owned by another corporate entity.  Over time, Toll Brothers substantially decreased the scope of the original development plan for its property while the approximate cost of the required off-tract improvements had risen from $2,100,000 to $5,000,000.  However, notwithstanding these circumstances, neither the County nor the Township were willing to adjust Toll Brothers’ obligations and, consequently, a multitude of lawsuits were commenced.

The trial court consolidated all of the aforesaid actions and found, among other things, that unlike the conditions of approval contained in a resolution Toll Brothers had no right to seek a modification or reformation of a developer’s agreement based upon a change in circumstances.  In a reported decision, 388 N.J.Super. 103 (2006), the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court with respect to its rulings on the County’s right to enforce its developer’s agreement, but reversed the trial court’s decision regarding the Township’s developer’s agreement.  The reason for the Appellate Division’s distinction in this regard resided in the specific text of each contract.

Under the County’s developer’s agreement, Toll Brothers had to construct all the off-tract improvements when the number of buildings for which permits had been issued generated more than 18% of the traffic projected for development under the original plan.  As such, according to the Appellate Division, Toll Brothers’ downsizing was largely irrelevant to the County’s developer’s agreement, because its obligation to build out the improvements was not tied to the completion of development under the original plan but, rather, accrued upon the 18% trigger. 388 N.J.Super. at 129.  Although the Appellate Division acknowledged that the Municipal Land Use Law prohibited the County from requiring Toll Brothers to build the off-tract improvements identified in the developer’s agreement as a condition of approval for Toll Brothers’ downsized development plan, it ruled that such limitations are inapplicable to a voluntary agreement. Ibid. at 123-124.  Contrarily, under the Township’s developer’s agreement, the contractual language required staged improvements that were directly linked to the original development plan and, therefore, could not be enforced once the scope of such plan had been reduced. Ibid. at 130-131.

On appeal, the Supreme Court began its analysis by recognizing that “[u]nder the MLUL, a planning board may only impose off-tract improvements on a developer if they are necessitated by the development.”  As such, “[a] developer cannot be compelled to shoulder more than its pro rata share of the cost of such improvements. . . . [This] is so even if the developer is a willing participant in a separate developer’s agreement.” – A.2d –, 2008 WL 833160 (N.J.) at *1.  To hold otherwise, would be contrary not only to the letter and spirit of the MLUL, but also sound public policy. Ibid. at *14.

Furthermore, even if disproportionate public benefits and improvements could be obtained from developers on a truly voluntary basis, such arrangements would “[p]lainly violate the nexus and proportionality requirements in the MLUL that serve as the Legislature’s check on a municipality’s limited planning power[,]” and thereby would be unenforceable.  A municipality’s exercise of this “limited planning power” must comply with the dictates of the MLUL even if the same is expressed in a contract rather than a resolution of approval.  Indeed, “[a] developer and a municipality cannot do by contract what the statute prohibits.” Ibid. at *15.  On the contrary, “[a] developer’s agreement is an ancillary instrument, tethered to the conditions of approval, and exists solely as a tool for the implementation of the resolution establishing the conditions.  Accordingly, if the resolution . . . changes, the developer’s agreement enjoys no independent status and must be renegotiated.”  As such, “[w]e do not view the ancillary developer’s agreement as a bar to Toll Brothers’ application for modification of the resolution setting the conditions of approval.” Ibid. at *13.

The Court also rejected the County’s alternative arguments, namely, that “[e]ven if Toll Brothers is not barred from advancing a changed circumstances challenge to the conditions of approval,” it is not entitled to relief, because the project was not completely abandoned and “[b]ecause the County relied to its detriment on what it considered the binding developer’s agreement in its later dealings with other developers.”  As to the first alternative point, the Court stated that limiting a developer’s right to seek a modification of a condition of approval only to instances where a project is abandoned “would offend the nexus and proportionality requirements reflected in the MLUL.”  Respecting the County’s detrimental reliance claim, the Court likened this to promissory estoppel and given that “[b]oth Toll Brothers and the County knew or should have known that the conditions of approval were subject to change if the facts in the case changed and that the developer’s agreement was not a stand-alone obligation[,]” the County’s reliance was not reasonable and, therefore, “this argument too must fail.” Ibid. at *15-16.

In light of the Court’s determinations, it reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

The foregoing summary of Toll Bros. v. Board of Chosen Freeholders shows how the Supreme Court in this case was determined not to let local and county government reap a windfall of public benefits at the expense of a single developer, who for one reason or another was unable to complete a particular project as originally approved and, instead, send a firm message that such situations call for flexibility and accommodation.  The common sense approach taken by the Supreme Court will have positive implications for developers and the building industry, especially now, in the current financial climate where flexibility is unquestionably at a premium.