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Knight v. Township of Shamong

A-1780-10T4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

CONTRACTS; PINELANDS COMMISSION — A settlement agreement for a dispute about property matters in the Pinelands, when subject to the approval of the Pinelands Commission, can later be modified by the Commission because the contracting or settling parties should have known that when their agreement was made subject to the approval of the Commission, it could later be modified by the Commission.

A municipality sought to add three softball fields. The fields were to be located within the Pinelands area and, therefore, were subject to the Pinelands Protection Act. The Pinelands Commission conditionally approved the fields, but neighboring residents appealed. During the course of that appeal, a settlement agreement was reached. Among other things, it was agreed that the municipality would “not place lights at the facilities except for low-level lights of the type necessary for safe parking area… .” The Pinelands Commission then passed a resolution approving the application “subject to the conditions stated in the settlement agreement.”

Six years later, “under the pressure of a threatened Title IX claim,” the municipality decided to seek approval for lighting not covered by the settlement agreement. Even though there were no objections, once the municipality successfully applied to the Pinelands Commission for approval of additional lighting, two of the original neighbors sued, “seeking an injunction prohibiting the use of the lighting and requiring removal of the lighting structures.” They argued that the lighting was not permitted by the settlement agreement and that they would be adversely affected by “light pollution” and the lighting would impair their ability to “enjoy the solitude of the evening.” The lower court dismissed the complaint on the basis that the claimed harm was insubstantial.

The neighbors appealed, but the Appellate Division upheld the lower court. In doing so, it added “that the judge was not required to equate the settlement agreement in question with an agreement between private parties over a private matter.” According to the Court, the “utilization of the property was also – and remained – subject to the jurisdiction of the Pinelands Commission.” Therefore, when the parties settled, they knew they were doing so “with the understanding that their agreement was subject to the approval of the Commission and that it could later be modified by the Commission,” as was the case in this matter.

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