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County of Warren v. State of New Jersey

409 N.J. Super. 495, 978 A.2d 312 (App. Div. 2009)

HIGHLANDS ACT — There is no constitutional provision, statute or case recognizing farming as a constitutionally protected right or designating farmers as a protected class; therefore, in evaluating the constitutionality of the Highlands Act as it applies to farm property, courts need only use a rational basis test and not a strict scrutiny test.

A county, together with farmers owning land within a “preservation area” created by the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (Highlands Act), challenged the validity of the Highlands Act. Pursuant to the Highlands Act, the Highlands Council was created and given responsibility for land use planning in the Highland Region which consisted of approximately 800,000 acres in eighty-eight municipalities located in parts of seven counties within New Jersey. By statute, the Highlands Council was obligated to prepare and adopt a regional master plan for the Highlands Region within eighteen months after the date of its first meeting. After conducting at least five public hearings at various locations within the Highlands Region and at least one public hearing in Trenton, the Highlands Counsel adopted a resolution authorizing release of its draft master plan and providing for hearings. The resolution was adopted after the eighteen-month deadline had passed. The Highlands Council eventually adopted a master plan. The county and farmers challenged the validity of the master plan because it was not adopted timely.

The lower court dismissed the complaint and the county and farmers appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed. The farmers argued that without additional authority from the state legislature, the Highlands Council was powerless to act and adopt a master plan once the eighteen-month deadline had passed and that any action by the council after the deadline was ultra vires. Further, they argued that the statute did not grant the Highlands Council the authority to extend the time to adopt a master plan. The Court disagreed, finding no case law to support the farmers’ contention that the extension of the deadline was ultra vires and therefore the subsequent adoption of a master plan after the deadline was void. It found nothing in the Highland Act to suggest that the legislature intended such a drastic result. The Court viewed the eighteen-month deadline as directory and not as a mandatory deadline.

The Court next evaluated the farmers’ equal protection claim. Here, the farmers claimed the Highlands Act was unconstitutional based on equal protection grounds. They argued that the lower court improperly evaluated the constitutionality of the statute using a “rational basis” test. Under the “rational basis” test, a statute only needs to be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. However, if a statute regulates a suspect class, then the “strict scrutiny” test applies and the government must show a compelling state interest and no less restrictive means for accomplishing the state’s objective. The farmers claimed that since farming is a fundamental right under the New Jersey constitution, they were a protected class and therefore the statute should have been evaluated using the “strict scrutiny” test.

The Court disagreed, finding that there was no constitutional provision, statute or case recognizing farming as a constitutionally protected right or designating farmers as a protected class. In addition, the Court found that the farmers failed to show how the Highlands Act impeded their right or ability to engage in the business of farming. While the statute might regulate their ability to use their land in the most profitable way, it did not prevent the farmers from deriving beneficial use of their property. The Court also rejected the farmers’ claim that their equal protection rights were violated because the most stringent regulations only affected owners of large tracts, but not owners of small ones. Instead, it found that the legislature had a rational purpose in protecting the Highlands from fragmented and unplanned development and it refused to second-guess that legislature’s determination as to how best to achieve those goals.


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