Recently, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey was required to determine whether the holders of  tax sale certificates for unpaid real estate taxes were entitled to be paid from the proceeds of a condemnation award when the estimated environmental clean-up costs exceed the fair market value of the property.  After a thorough review of the law, the court held that the tax liens could not be paid until the amount of the environmental liability was determined, even if it meant that the tax liens may never get paid.

In Township of Haddon v. Morgan Brothers, et al., Haddon Township sought to acquire a parcel of real estate by the exercise of its power of eminent domain.  After the complaint was filed, Haddon Township deposited $280,000 with the court which was the Township’s estimate of the fair market value of the property “as if remediated”.  The Township also admitted into evidence an expert report alleging that the amount necessary to remediate the environmental contamination was estimated to exceed $1.3 million.

The holder of several tax sale certificates sought to withdraw $125,000 from the $280,000 deposit which was the amount due on the tax sale certificates.  The tax certificate holders argued that as first priority liens under New Jersey law, they were entitled to be paid before any other party in the case.  However, the estimated clean-up costs were approximately $1.3 million and greatly exceeded the value of the property.  The court was asked to determine whether the tax certificate holders were allowed to be paid from the $280,000 being held in escrow, or whether the certificate holders were required to wait to see if there was any money available after the clean-up was completed.

Under New Jersey law, when a condemning authority deposits the estimated value of the property into court and files a declaration of taking, title to the property transfers to the condemning authority.   Liens against the property attach to the deposit in priority order.  Parties with an interest in the funds are entitled to file a motion with the court to withdraw funds in the order of their priority.  For example, a mortgage holder is entitled to withdraw the balance due on its mortgage before the property owner receives any funds.  The same holds true for a tax certificate holder who is entitled to be paid before all mortgages, judgments liens and the owner.  This is the case when there are no environmental problems.

When there are environmental problems, the process for withdrawing funds is changed.  The condemning authority is entitled to introduce into evidence an environmental report disclosing the estimated clean-up cost for the property and request that the estimated clean-up costs be withheld from the amount on deposit until the clean-up is completed.  For example, if the “as remediated” value of the property is $300,000 and the estimated clean-up costs are $100,000, the property owner and lienholders are only entitled to withdraw $200,000 from the $300,000 on deposit, with the balance of $100,000 to remain in escrow pending the completion of the environmental clean-up.  The term  “as remediated” means the value of the property assuming all environmental remediation has been completed.

The Appellate Division ultimately held that the tax liens may only be paid from funds remaining after Haddon Township is reimbursed for the remediation costs.  Under the facts in the case, it was unlikely there will be any remaining funds remaining due to the high cost of remediation.

The case is based upon sound reasoning.  Looking at the Haddon Township case, if a property is worth $280,000 “as remediated”, but it costs $1.3 million to remediate it, it has negative value.  After the remediation is completed, the property is only worth $280,000.  It would be unfair to allow the property owner (or lienholders) to keep the $280,000 which is a direct result of the $1.3 million spent to clean up the property.