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City of Long Branch v. Liu

A-0237-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

CONDEMNATION; VALUATION — The value of a property taken by eminent domain should not be enhanced as a result of another public agency’s expenditures to a neighboring area because if such enhancement were allowed, the owner would reap private monetary benefit from the public effort.

A husband and wife owned beachfront property. After the area was designated by the municipality as being in need of redevelopment, the municipality filed a complaint seeking to take the parcel through eminent domain. It filed a declaration of taking and deposited money with the Clerk of the Superior Court. The property owners claimed that the sum was inadequate.

At trial before the Law Division, the jury rejected the opinions of both experts as to valuation and awarded the owners a sum higher than the municipality offered but lower than the valuation proposed by the owners’ experts. The owners appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the jury, after being properly instructed on the principles underlying an award for furniture, fixtures, and equipment, rejected the owner’s position as to such items’ value. It also ruled that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in admitting photographs taken more than six years after the valuation date because there was testimony that explained the differences between what was shown in the pictures and the conditions at the earlier date. It also agreed with the lower court’s rejection of the owners’ argument that opposing counsel violated the rules of professional conduct. It would not disturb the lower court’s factual findings because the lower court had a better perspective to evaluate whether counsel for the municipality had properly inspected the documents of one of the owners’ experts. Further, the Court believed that there was no reasonable prospect that the municipality’s counsel’s conduct unfairly influenced the jury. In any event, the Court noted that the lower court gave a curative instruction to the jury.

The Court also held that the lower court’s decisions about the admission or exclusion of evidence was discretionary and did not serve as a basis for reversal. Further, it rejected the owners’ argument that the doctrine of “judicial estoppel” required that it reverse on the matter because of the municipality’s shift in its position on the use of space at the property. The Court was satisfied that judicial estoppel was inapplicable because there was no prior proceeding at which the municipality successfully established its prior position as to the use of the space. Further, the Court held that even if it was to decide that judicial estoppel did apply, it would not matter since market value was to be decided by an analysis as to the highest and best use of the property, not the actual use on the date of the taking. According to the Court, the highest and best use analysis was utilized by both parties. The Court also opined that improvements or changes contemplated by the condemning authority and undertaken at its expense cannot be taken into account in determining just compensation. Similarly, it rejected the owners’ argument that the value of the property should have been enhanced as a result of another public agency’s expenditures to increase the beachfront because, according to the Court, to do so would permit the owners to reap private monetary benefits from those public efforts. Finally, the Court held that the owners were entitled to post-judgment interest from the time the funds were deposited with the lower court until the date the Court dissolved the stay in turning over the funds to the owners.


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