Long Branch eminent domain case reversed and remanded

In a unanimous 85-page opinion, the Appellate Division today reversed the decision of Judge Lawson and remanded the controversial eminent domain case, City of Long Branch v. Anzalone, for a plenary hearing. The court agreed with the arguments made by the appellants that the record was devoid of the requisite substantial evidence of blight required by N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5 and the New Jersey Constitution, Article 8, paragraph 3:

We agree with appellants that, in light of the principles laid down in Gallenthin, the City did not find actual blight under any subsection of N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5, that the record lacked substantial evidence that could have supported the New Jersey Constitution's standard for finding blight, and that the absence of substantial evidence of blight compels reversal.

Although the Appellate Division left the door open for the city to supplement the record to prove blight, this will be highly problematic, and it is doubtful they will be able to produce a qualified planning expert who will reach that conclusion. An additional problem for Long Branch will be the recent decision of Judge Lawson in the prerogative writ suit, Park Steel v. Borough of Neptune City, in which he relied substantially on the Gallenthin v. Borough of Paulsboro, 191 N.J. 344 (2007) case and the ERETC v. City of Perth Amboy, 381 N.J. Super. 268 (App. Div. 2005) case. In the Park Steel case, which was decided on May 7 and released July 7, 2008, Judge Lawson found that Neptune did not meet the test to provide substantial credible evidence of blight.  Download the Appellate opinion in City of Long Branch v Anzalone.

The remand to Judge Lawson will also involve the resolution of the conflicting interpretations of the parties regarding the term, “residential infill." The original redevelopment plan, developed by the Thompson Group in 1996, called for the MTOTSA properties to be “residential infill." It is clear from the documents produced by Long Branch that this term means single family residential. The city interprets this term to mean that they could proceed to acquire these properties and build an additional 185 residential condominiums. The court will be asked to determine whether or not the MTOTSA area acquisitions are necessary for the implementation of the redevelopment plan. It is the property owners’ contention that the plan for Beachfront North, as originally designed, has been built. The MTOTSA property owners hotly contest the City’s interpretation of “residential infill,” and the Appellate Division has asked Judge Lawson to address that in a hearing with additional findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to R. 1:7-4.

The property owners will file motions before Judge Lawson seeking to dismiss the complaints and will ask the court to award counsel fees and costs pursuant to N.J.S.A. 20:3-26(b) and the case of City of West Orange v. 769 Associates, LLC (397 N.J. Super. 244 (App. Div. 2007). Given the very strong language of the Appellate Court cited above regarding the lack of substantial credible evidence of blight, it appears that Judge Lawson should dismiss these condemnation complaints. If Long Branch elects to pursue its rights under the Local Redevelopment Housing Law, the matter should proceed to the Long Branch Planning Board where a new record can be developed. There is no authority for the condemnation complaints to remain viable where the Appellate Court has found the city did not comply with its statutory obligations regarding blight.