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Matric Enterprises, Inc. v. Township of Berkley

A-1284-08T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

LIENS; MUNICIPALITIES; TAXATION — Where property owners have had an ample opportunity to appeal the amount of demolition costs assessed by a municipality against their property but fail to do so within the statutorily prescribed time limits, they forfeit their right to do so.

After inspections and hearings, three structures on a property were deemed unsafe by a municipality. The owners agreed to allow the municipality to perform the demolition and agreed to pay the resulting costs. After the demolition, the municipality sent the owners a letter confirming and itemizing the demolition costs. The letter also advised the owners that a municipal lien, in the form of a tax lien, would be imposed on the owners’ property if the amount remained unpaid. The owners claimed the demolition costs were exorbitant and were not agreed to by the owners or the court. It thus sought an order declaring the municipal lien invalid.

The lower court refused to consider the owners’ motion because it had never filed a complaint challenging the lien amount. Approximately one year later, the owners filed a complaint seeking to halt the tax sale of their property. The owners asserted that they relied to their detriment on the municipality performing the work at a lower cost than a private contractor. The owners also claimed that they were never provided with individual notice of the impending tax sale. The Court held that the statute authorizes a municipality to impose a lien when demolition costs remain unpaid. The Court found that the municipality advised the owners of the demolition costs and that the owners had agreed to permit the municipality to demolish the buildings and pay the resulting costs. It also held that the owners had an ample opportunity to appeal the amount of the demolition costs but failed to do so within the statutorily prescribed time limits. It also denied the owners’ motion to enjoin the tax sale. The owners appealed, claiming that the municipality violated their substantive and procedural due process rights because the municipality did nothing to notify the owners of the cost associated with the demolition until it had become a “fait accompli;” failed to advertise and seek competitive bids for the project, as required by statute; denied them the opportunity to examine the demolition proposals to assess their reasonableness; and failed to properly notify the owners of the tax sale.

The Appellate Division affirmed, ruling that a state statute does not violate federal or state substantive due process guarantees if the statute “reasonably relates to a legitimate legislative purpose and is not arbitrary or discriminatory.” The Court stated that, here, the owners had an opportunity to file an action challenging the reasonableness of the amount of the tax lien and they did not do so until nearly a year after they were permitted to file such an action. Thus, the Court concluded that the owners were given a full, fair, and adequate mechanism by which to challenge the amount of the demolition costs and the resulting lien and thus rejected the owners’ substantive due process claims. The Court went on to note that the owners simply failed to avail themselves of the tax appeal procedure within the thirty-day statutory time limit and therefore forfeited their right to do so. The Court also held that a procedural due process claim requires an evaluation as to whether the governmental body afforded the citizen adequate advance notice of the contemplated governmental action and an opportunity to be heard. Here, the Court noted that the owners agreed to allow the municipality to perform the demolition and removal and expressly recognized that they had the right to demolish the property at their own expense. In addition, the Court found that the owners conceded that their complaint focused solely on the costs charged to them and did not allege inadequate notice. Finally, the Court rejected the owners’ remaining procedural due process claim when it held that there was no statutory requirement to give personal notice of the tax sale and that all statutory notice requirements had been met with respect to the sale.

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