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Forbes v. Board of Trustees of The Township of South Orange Village

312 N.J. Super. 519, 712 A.2d 255 (App. Div. 1998)

REDEVELOPMENT; BLIGHT—The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law is properly authorized by the New Jersey Constitution even though it no longer uses the term “blighted.”

A court challenge was made to a municipality’s designation of its central business district as a redevelopment area and the adoption of a redevelopment plan for that area. The main thrust of the challenge to the designation and plan was that the municipality had failed to comply with constitutional and statutory standards governing such a determination. The lower court, based on the record before it, found substantial evidence to support the municipal designation of the area and the Appellate Division upheld the lower court. The claimant’s main argument was that there was insufficient basis to justify the finding that the designated area was, as constitutionally required, “blighted.” They claimed that the governing statute, the 1992 Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, required a pre-requisite blight determination and that the municipality proceeded with its designation of the redevelopment area without making that determination.

The New Jersey constitution provides for the clearance, replanning, development or redevelopment of blighted areas as a public purpose and public use, for which private property may be taken and acquired. It also provides for the granting of limited or full tax exemptions, subject to some profit limitations. Pursuant to this constitutional provision, a series of implementing acts was adopted by the legislature, beginning with the Blighted Area Act in 1949. As used in that Act the term, “blighted area” meant an area in any municipality wherein there exists to a large extent: (a) unfit, unsanitary and unsafe residential buildings and structures; (b) buildings and structures used by more inhabitants than can be fitly and safely housed; (c) buildings and structures which have economically deteriorated; (d) and a prevalence of factors conducive of ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, crime and poverty. Clearly, most of the definition referred only to residential blight, but the “economic deterioration” standard covered non-residential property as well. The blight definition was expanded in 1951, this time making specific reference to unimproved vacant land which, for a number of stated reasons, would not likely be developed through the instrumentality of the private capital. In l986, a further definition was added covering areas in excess of ten contiguous acres whereon buildings or improvements have been destroyed, consumed by fire, or demolished or altered by severe weather conditions or other casualty in a way that the aggregate assessed value of the area has been materially depreciated. According to the Court, throughout the legislative changes, while the focus on residential slums remained substantially unchanged, the legislature recognized that the concept of blight also embraced the total unproductivity of unimproved vacant land and that commercial blight embraced not only economic deterioration in tax revenue terms, but also the adverse physical conditions of the property that individually or in combination impede its reasonable productivity or result in a negative impact upon the general welfare and economic well-being of the community. Furthermore, the Court, in reviewing the initial legislation and the changes, found that the fundamental differences between various pieces of the legislation were cosmetic only and that their substantive provisions, as well as their structure and verbiage, were virtually identical. Even though the word “blight” was ultimately replaced with the phrase, “in need of redevelopment,” and references to dwellings were eliminated, it became clear that the described conditions were not limited to residential properties only. References to “slum areas” were eliminated, but the basic concept of “blight” remained in place. Based upon this analysis, the Appellate Division found that the constitutional “blight” standard was properly treated by the legislature in all of its implementing acts. It also ruled that where the multiple definitions of blight had not been successfully challenged on the basis of constitutional non-conformance, overstatement or overbreadth for more than 40 years, it has now come to constitute a community consensus, an expression of a common understanding, of what is meant by “blight” subject to public remediation. Even though the legislature may have taken the word “blight” out of the current statute in favor of the more euphemistic “area in need of development,” and it may have taken the word “slum” out for the same euphemistic reason, the vital standards have not changed in any material respect. Having found that the implementing legislation was properly supported by the constitutional grant of authority, the Appellate Division let stand the lower court’s factual determination that the municipality followed the proper procedure and properly determined that the designated redevelopment area was “blighted.”


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