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Kearns v. Township of Bernards Sewerage Authority

A-0129-05T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

SEWERS—It is not improper for a municipal sewerage utility to offer free connections from the curb to the sewer main as part of an over-all, time-limited program and then require property owners to pay for connections made after that program has expired.

A couple bought a house, even though they were aware that its septic system was deficient. For a limited time before the couple bought their home and as part of an public bid expansion project, the Municipal Sewerage Authority offered property owners on the same street the opportunity to connect to the sewer main. The cost of running a line from the house to the curb was to be borne by the homeowner, whereas the Authority would install the lateral line from the curb to the main as part of its offer. By the time the couple bought the house, the Authority already was charging homeowners for the full cost of connecting to its sewer mains.

The homeowners sought reimbursement for costs incurred to connect their residential property to the Authority’s sewer main. The lower court granted the Authority summary judgment, dismissing the complaint after determining that the complaint was both time-barred and without substantive basis. The homeowners appealed that decision.

The homeowners argued that the Authority was obligated to treat all homeowners equally. Their basic argument was that requiring them to connect from the curb in front of their property to the water main would be to treat them differently than others who were allowed to connect for free when the project was undertaken at public expense. The lower court rejected this argument because nothing in the record could support it. In arguing that the distinction between public projects and single private hookups was discriminatory, the homeowners cited to a case where the New Jersey Supreme Court found that was no rational basis to support the Authority’s treatment of development homes as a class separate from other similar dwellings in the community. The lower court found earlier case to be inapposite because these particular homeowners did not demonstrate that the difference between providing sewers in the street through public projects and the occasional providing of run-outs for individual homeowners at their request and at the homeowner’s cost was irrational. Accordingly, the lower found no discrimination.

The homeowners also argued that they were denied their equal protection rights because persons in the Authority’s earlier project were supplied with free run-outs and they were not. The lower court responded that the homeowners were not similarly situated to those persons.

Explaining that the homeowner’s constitutional claim for equal protection implicated the rational basis test, the lower court found that the homeowners had not shown that the Authority’s regulations were arbitrary. Nor had the homeowners shown that the Authority’s practice of supplying run-outs under the earlier project was not reasonably related to its mandate to connect all homes to its sewer system. The lower court summarized the homeowners’ continued litigation as a failure to understand that the homeowners’ predecessors had the opportunity to connect at a lower price only as part of a publicly bid project. The homeowners’ predecessors did not take advantage of that opportunity. Thus, the homeowners could not now argue that they should be reimbursed for the loss of their sewer connection.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that the homeowners’ claims were fully and correctly addressed by the lower court. Accordingly, it affirmed the judgment of the lower court.


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