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In the Matter of New Jersey State Planning Commission Resolutions No. 2003-03 and No. 2003-04

A-6589-02T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

SMART GROWTH — A court analyzes the process by which the Office of Smart Growth handled a petition from various municipalities to amend the New Jersey State Plan Policy Map to designate areas within each municipality as town centers.

Several municipalities petitioned the Office of State Planning to amend the New Jersey State Plan Policy Map to designate areas within each municipality as town centers. The Office of Smart Growth (OSG) in the Department of Community Affairs recommended approval with some revisions to each application. The OSG, after consultation with, and approval from, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), made the following recommendations: The town center boundaries of one application were to be modified to limit adverse impacts on a trout producing stream. In another application, the town center’s boundaries were reset to better approximate housing density requirements. In the third application, the OSG recommended certain growth management mechanisms aimed to redirect development into the town center from the outlying environs. In the fourth application, sewer service expansion was recommended to serve the anticipated development. The State Planning Commission’s Plan Implementation Committee agreed with the OSG and recommended that each application be approved as amended. Thereafter the State Planning Commission (Commission) passed resolutions approving each revised application.

An environmental group alleged that the resolutions were invalid because they violated the Commission’s own regulations in that they violated the New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan (State Plan) for the designation of town centers. Although the Appellate Division found that each municipal application failed to satisfy all State Plan criteria, it held not all departures from the State Plan criteria require invalidation of agency action.

Judicial review of administrative determinations is limited to inquiring if the agency’s action violates legislative policy; whether the agency clearly erred in reaching conclusions that could not reasonably be made on the basis of the relevant facts; and whether the agency’s action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or if it was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Where a State agency is charged with enforcing a statute, substantial deference is given to that agency’s interpretation of the statute. The environmental group contended that the State Plan criteria constituted administrative rules, binding on the Commission and requiring strict compliance. The Appellate Division ruled that the State Plan has no regulatory effect, but was only a policy guide and planning tool for use by State and local authorities in exercising their authority. The criteria for designating town centers are flexible and serve as a general guide toward achieving development policy objectives. Here, the OSG’s recommendations recited the policy reasons for granting the approvals, and the Court respected the Commission’s acceptance of the OSG’s recommendations and policy considerations. It is not the function of a court to choose between competing policy goals. The environmental group also contended that the approvals had to be invalidated because the Commission failed to ensure that natural resources would not be impaired or that environmental constraints would not be violated. The Appellate Division rejected this argument because the approvals still required all development to satisfy all other conditions of development, including conditions imposed by other agencies.

The environmental group claimed that the Commission violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) because the Commission relied on documents not made available to the public. It contended that not enough time or consideration was spent on the issue of relocating one town center’s boundary to safeguard a trout producing stream. The OPMA requires strict adhereance to its rules. However, invalidation of an agency’s determination is an extreme remedy reserved for violations which undermine the basic purpose of the OPMA. A State agency need not provide the public with every document on which it relies to make a decision. Further, agencies are encouraged to consult with other agencies with the purpose of enhancing prudent development. Correspondence between the OSG and the DEP revealed that both agencies spent a considerable amount of time evaluating the impact on the pertinent stream. Further, correspondence between two agencies does not constitute a “meeting” subject to the disclosure requirements of the OPMA. Although all Commission meetings must be conducted in accordance with the OPMA, nothing requires that documentation relied on by one agency when providing assistance to another must be furnished to the public. Nor does the OPMA require a verbatim record of meetings. Reasonably comprehensive minutes are sufficient.

One Commission member was also the director of a counting planning department. This member recused himself from discussion and abstained from voting on the applications affecting municipalities in which he previously provided advise in his capacity as director of the county planning department. The environmental group claimed that this recusal was ineffective to cleanse the conflict. Public officials are disqualified from proceedings in which the official has a conflict that may interfere with the impartial performance of duties. There are four situations requiring recusal: (1) where the matter benefits the official’s own property or affords a direct financial gain; (2) where the matter financially benefits someone closely tied to the official; (3) where the matter has a non-financial benefit on the official’s blood relative or close friend; and (4) where the official’s judgment may be affected by membership in some other organization and the official desires to help that organization further its goals. Whether an interest is sufficient enough to require recusal is a factual question to be resolved based on the particular facts of a case. There can be no conflict absent contradictory desires tugging the official in opposite directions. In this case, because interagency cooperation is encouraged to further smart growth, the Court found no basis for concluding that the Commission member’s objectivity was impaired. Thus, the Commission’s decisions approving the town center applications were affirmed.

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