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In re Petition For A Declaratory Ruling Regarding the City of Plainfield’s Park-Madison Site

372 N.J. Super. 544, 859 A.2d 1232 (App. Div. 2004)

GREEN ACRES—Where a municipal property was always intended for development, the use of Urban Enterprise Zone Funds to provide for its interim use for recreational purposes does not make the land part of the municipality’s inventory such that it would have to replace the land or provide compensation for the land to be developed.

A municipality entered into an agreement with a developer to develop a Green Acres site which had been briefly used for recreational purposes while the municipality was in search of a developer. After the developer started work, opponents to the site’s development sought a ruling that N.J.S.A. 13:8A-47 did not allow development because the Green Acres site had been used for recreational purposes. The Commissioner denied the opposition’s motion.

The statute had been amended to provided that the proscription against disposing or diverting lands used for recreation and conservation purposes without Commissioner and State House Commission approval did not apply to certain lands included in a redevelopment plan that had been used for recreation and conservation purposes pending implementation of the redevelopment plan. This exception, however, only applies to lands that were not acquired or developed with financial assistance provided by the State, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act of 1978, or a county or local open space trust fund.

The plain wording of the amendment removed from “inventory” lands included in a redevelopment plan that had been used for recreation and conservation purposes pending implementation of a redevelopment plan. Under this exemption, because the site was not part of the municipality’s inventory, the municipality would not have been required to provide a replacement parcel or compensation. The opposition asserted, however, that the amendment did not apply to this particular site because the municipality had received State Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) funds for the recreational purposes.

The Appellate Division held that the statutory amendment’s legislative intent demonstrated that the exception applied to lands that were temporarily used for recreation or conservation purposes and did not apply to lands which were acquired or developed with State funds for recreation or conservation purposes. In this case, from the time the municipality acquired the site, its intention was to redevelop it for commercial purposes. The UEZ funds received and used by the municipality were not funds designated for developing recreation and conservation projects. The goal of the UEZ Act was to provide a framework within which encouragement could be given to private capital investment for economic revitalization of distressed and blighted urban areas. Although the funds were used for temporary enhancement of the park while the municipality was trying to find a willing developer, the UEZ funds were designed and intended to promote commercial redevelopment at the developer’s site. More importantly, the municipality did not acquire the site for recreational purposes, but had always pursued commercial development.

For that reason, the Court held that the site met the exception carved out by the amendment and was exempt from Green Acres restrictions. Therefore, it could not be considered as having been diverted from lands held for recreational purposes. Accordingly, the municipality was not required to provide a replacement parcel or compensation for loss of the site.

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