Eminent Domain Decision: Appellate panel affirms Judge Costello in Twp. of Bloomfield v. 110 Washington Street

In a Per Curiam decision released today, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirmed unanimously the August 3, 2005 decision of Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello in the matter of Township of Bloomfield vs. 110 Washington Street.  Judge Costello dismissed the first eminent domain complaint filed by the Township of Bloomfield in furtherance of its flawed redevelopment project.See our blog of August 5, 2005.

The three-judge panel rejected the main argument of the Township of Bloomfield outright. The township argued that a previous decision by Judge Coleman, who dismissed 110 Washington Street’s prerogative writ suit on grounds of lack of timeliness, was dispositive of the merits of the case. The Appellate panel disagreed and refused to apply the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel  to bar the challenge in this proceeding. The judges said that the defendants were entitled to a full and fair opportunity to litigate all the issues, since Judge Coleman only focused on the lack of timeliness ( i.e., it wasn’t filed within the 45-days required to contest municipal action) and not the merits of the case.

The Court deferred to Judge Costello as to the facts and background of the case developed in the record and concluded:

Given the trial court's view of the facts, however, our independent analysis of the legal arguments presented leads us to substantial agreement with many of the reasons for decision Judge Costello articulated in her letter decision of August 3, 2005.  

The practical effect of this win has been that the 110 Washington Street partners were able to strike a deal with Bloomfield taking them out of the redevelopment plan and thereby letting them pursue their own development objectives for the property.

The larger question is, what does this decision do to the other property owners who are contesting the blight designation?

Last month Bloomfield fast-tracked a reconsideration of the blight issue before its planning board. In less than two hours, the planning board heard a regurgitation of the same report by the township’s planning experts, Heyer and Gruel, with minor modifications which purportedly address the criticisms of Judge Costello. The planning board confirmed the blight designation for the remaining properties at a special meeting on July 20. This decision was put before the mayor and council in executive session in three business days on July 24, and was approved by the council at the next meeting on August 7, 2006.

By the end of this week, the five property owners in the other suit, Lardieri et al v. Township of Bloomfield will file a second prerogative writ suit contesting the blight designation for their properties. This time, they will be within the 45-days to contest a municipal action and the trial court will have to afford the property owners a full hearing on the merits.

The Heyer and Gruel planning report is deficient because there was no reinspection of any of the properties in question, neither interior nor exterior. There was no evaluation of changed conditions of the properties in the intervening five years since the report was originally completed. The report is very similar to the planning report rejected by the Appellate Division in the case of ERETC, L.L.C. v. City of Perth Amboy A-2035-04T2, decided Nov. 15, 2005.

Related articles:

"Not All Ripe for the Taking" by Lisa Brennan in the New Jersey Law Journal (August 8, 2005)

"KO'ing Kelo" by Wlliam J. Ward in the New Jersey Lawyer (December 5, 2005)