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Manzo v. Marlboro Township Municipal Utilities Authority

A-4066-03T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

MUNICIPALITIES; UTILITY AUTHORITIES; APPEALS—Where a landowner seeking service from a municipal authority repeatedly, over eight years, attempts to resolve, with the authority, issues that are a prerequisite to obtaining that service, the forty-five day appeal period within which the customer can appeal a denial of service can be enlarged on equitable grounds.

A property owner sought to build a retail shopping center. It obtained site plan approval from the municipality’s planning board and commenced construction of the shopping center. The municipality’s utilities authority had exclusive jurisdiction over potable water in the municipality, but it did not have the necessary water lines to service all of the properties. As a result, it permitted some of the municipality’s residents to enter into temporary service contracts with a neighboring utilities authority for water service. The utility authority also did not have water lines that were in close proximity to the shopping center. As a result, its owner applied to the utility authority for permission to enter into a service contract with the neighboring utility authority. The request was denied and the parties attempted to resolve this issue for many years. Eight years later, when construction of the shopping center was substantially completed, its owner once again requested permission from the utilities authority to use the neighboring authority’s water services. This time the utilities authority granted the owner permission to enter into a temporary service contract with the neighboring authority. This permission was conditioned upon the owner constructing water lines and other on- and off-site improvements within one year to enable the authority to service the property. The owner objected to this condition because the cost of constructing the water lines was very high. His application for modification of the condition was denied. He then filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs, challenging the authority’s conditional approval of the service contract. He also sought to make his temporary contract with the neighboring authority permanent. The lower court dismissed the owner’s action, ruling that it was time barred under Rule 4:69-6(a). The owner appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling, holding that under Rule 4:69-6(a), an action in lieu of prerogative writs must be filed no longer than forty-five days after the cause of action accrues, but this period of time may be enlarged by a court if the interest of justice so requires. The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized three categories of cases where this exception applies, which are matters involving: 1) important and novel constitutional questions; 2) informal or ex parte determinations of legal questions by administrative officials; and 3) the presence of important public rather than private interests which require adjudication or clarification. Other factors that a court may consider include whether there will be a continuing violation of public rights, whether individual installments or payments are to be made under a challenged contract, and whether the question will have a continuing impact on the parties. All of these factors must be balanced again the overall purpose of the rule, being to prevent a party from resting on its rights. The Court found that although the owner clearly filed the action well after the forty-five day period, there was no evidence that he had rested on his rights. Over an eight year period, until the commencement of the action, the man had repeatedly attempted to resolve the water servicing issue with the authority. It found that the case involved an important public interest, namely the ability of the utility authority to impose expensive on-site and off-site conditions upon property owners within its service area. It held that this public interest warranted the extension of the forty-five day period and that is why it reversed the lower court’s ruling.

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