Municipality’s Attempt to Condemn Mobile Home Parks as Part of Redevelopment Fails
In a recent decision issued in the Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County, a determination was made that the Borough of Lodi’s efforts to condemn two manufactured home communities (Brown’s Trailer Park, and Costa’s Mobile Home Park) would not be allowed to proceed because the municipality failed to make sufficient fact findings consistent with New Jersey’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law. More specifically, the L.R.H.L. requires the municipality to make a finding, based upon “substantial evidence” that an area is in need of redevelopment. If a finding is properly made under the law, that triggers the municipality’s power under the redevelopment law to exercise the power of imminent domain.
“If the decision is supported by substantial evidence, the fact that the question is debatable does not justify substitution of judicial judgment for that of local legislative laws.”
An area in need of redevelopment must be established by substantial evidence. In other words, each project is fact sensitive and must be so analyzed. The Court’s review is dependent on the substantial credible evidence being presented.
In Lodi, the affected property owners were given notice of planning board hearings to analyze whether or not the location of these communities was “an area in need of redevelopment.” The community owners had counsel appear on their behalf and cross-examined the expert planners who testified in support of the redevelopment project. They presented their own expert planners to testify in opposition to the “need for redevelopment” determination. Precise factual analysis found in the record was the key component of the Court’s decision to stop the municipality’s use of eminent domain. The Court said:
“The Court agrees that the municipal planner failed to address the important criteria, i.e., interior inspection of trailers, lack of specific references to safety violations and failure to identify any type of health hazards. The evidence put forth by the defendants in support of their designation of redevelopment can be summed up as vague criticisms of the conditions at the complex based upon superficial observations. The defendant’s expert could not point to one single unsanitary condition, or a condition that would make the area unlivable, in contrast to the plaintiffs who provided evidence that the property was successfully operating as a provider of low income housing.
As testified to below, there were no safety or health hazards, no excessive police activities and the land, as utilized, generated revenue in terms of license fees and taxes. While the road layout was questioned by the municipal planner, there does not appear to have been any problem with emergency vehicles in the area…while it is obvious that some trailers are in need of repairs or painting and there is an apparent overgrowth of vegetation, enforcement of the Property Maintenance Code would correct those conditions.”
In essence, the Court found that the municipality’s decision that these properties were substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, dilapidated, or obsolescent, or conducive to unwholesome living, or was an area which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangements, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout affected the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community was not supported by substantial evidence. The Court also found that the town did not satisfy the statutory criteria that the use was stagnant or not fully productive. They based these findings on the fact that the municipality’s investigation was found to be superficial, and did not adequately address the counter-veiling considerations applicable to manufactured homeland lease communities based upon the fact that they both generate revenue (taxes and municipal service fees) and provide a realistic opportunity for low income housing.
This important case underscores the need to respond when the municipality announces that it is considering including your property in a proposed “area in need of redevelopment.” You should attend meetings. You should respond by questioning the municipality’s experts and providing facts and expert testimony of your own.
Mr. Hanlon is a principal of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, P.C. He represents over 80 land lease communities and serves as counsel to the Sayreville Economic and Redevelopment Agency.
By Christopher J. Hanlon, Esq., a NJ Landlord/Tenant Attorney
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