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New Jersey Shore Builders Association v. Township of Jackson

199 N.J. 38, 970 A.2d 992 (2009)

ORDINANCES; POLICE POWERS — To be valid, an ordinance adopted by a municipality pursuant to its police powers does not need to be perfect; it only needs to advance the cause it was intended to achieve.

A municipality invoked its police power to enact a tree removal ordinance. The ordinance’s stated purpose was to address the adverse effects of tree removal on private property, protect the environment, and promote the “health, safety, and general well-being” of its residents. The ordinance required any property owner removing a tree to either replace the tree or pay into a fund dedicated to planting trees and shrubs on public property. A builder’s trade association challenged the validity of the ordinance.

The lower court found that the ordinance’s purpose was to ameliorate the negative impacts tree removal would have on affected properties, such as soil erosion, dust, and reduced property values. Then, it held the ordinance to be invalid, ruling that the ordinance’s requirement to pay into a fund for the planting of trees and shrubs on public property in certain circumstances bore no real or substantial relationship to the those purposes. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the ordinance was not a valid exercise of police power because the payment of a fee to plant trees on public property did not ameliorate the negative effects of removing trees from private property.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the tree removal ordinance was a valid exercise of the municipality’s police power because the details of the ordinance were rationally related to the broad environmental goals of the ordinance to protect the environment and to promote the health, safety, and well-being of the municipality’s residents. The Court noted that ordinances adopted pursuant to a municipality’s police powers are presumed valid, and that a governing board, with its knowledge and experience, is presumed to have a rational basis for adopting the ordinance. In order to invalidate an ordinance adopted pursuant to a police power, a showing is needed that there was no rational basis for the ordinance. A court is not permitted to evaluate evidence for or against a challenged ordinance or to evaluate a policy choice made by a legislative body. In this case, the Court found that the lower court improperly placed the burden on the municipality to justify the ordinance, and then narrowly interpreted the ordinance to focus on only one of its goals. The Court found that, on its face, the tree removal ordinance recognized that trees are an important ecological resource and that the removal of trees from any property will affect the health, safety, and well-being of a municipality’s residents. It noted that, to be valid, an ordinance does not need to be perfect; it only needs to advance the cause it was intended to achieve. Here, the ordinance was intended to require the replanting of trees on private property when trees were removed, and, if that was not feasible, to mitigate the overall loss of trees in the municipality by having new trees planted elsewhere on public property. The Court found that to be reasonable, and a valid exercise of police power.

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