New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Michael Feldman Associates, L.L.C.

326 N.J. Super. 388, 741 A.2d 608 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: December 14, 1999

CONDEMNATION; DEPOSITS; TURNPIKE AUTHORITY—The New Jersey Turnpike Authority does not have to increase its initial condemnation deposit with the court when Condemnation Commissioners find that the Authority’s initial appraisal was too low.

A landowner’s property was condemned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Based upon the Authority’s initial appraisal and its bona fide offer to the landowner, the Authority deposited the amount of its appraisal with the court. The property owner did not accept the appraisal and the value of the property was then determined by Condemnation Commissioners, who valued the property at more than twice the Authority’s figure. The Authority rejected the Commissioners’ report and sought relief in court. The property owner contended that the Authority’s failure to deposit into court an amount equal to the difference between the Commissioner’s valuation and the Authority’s initial appraisal was unfair and a violation of equal protection of law. Had the condemnation taken place after the Commissioners’ report, the Authority would have been required to post the entire amount so determined. Consequently, the landowner argued that if the Authority had not immediately taken possession by filing a “declaration of taking” when the complaint was filed, and had it not sought protection by the filing of a declaration of taking until after the Condemnation Commissioners’ award, the amount of the Condemnation Commissioners’ award would, by statute, be mandated as the deposit. Although the landowner conceded that the difference between the final judgment and the deposit would ultimately be paid with interest, it asserted that this “does not assist the landowner while the case is pending.” Moreover, it claimed that it had a right to withdraw the deposit and could do so by posting a bond even when the Authority challenged the Commissioners’ award as excessive. New Jersey statutes direct that deposits based on Commissioner’s awards be made only if they are the first valuation made in the case. “Courts should enforce the express language of a statute, (citations omitted), and a literal interpretation of the statute here is clearly not absurd. If the condemning authority has not taken the property before the Commissioners’ award, that award represents the best available conclusion regarding its market value.” On the other hand, having made a bona fide appraisal in the first place, it would be “fundamentally unfair to require the State to raise the deposit to an amount with which it disagrees and may appeal. The Commissioners[’] award does not carry any presumptive weight.” In other words, “[i]t is one thing to order the State to deposit its bona fide appraisal figure upon taking a property; but entirely another to direct deposit of a contested award where the fight has yet one round to go.” The Court recognized the merit of the landowner’s argument that some condemning authorities may not be fiscally sound and in the absence of an initial deposit there could be a taking without ultimate payment of the “just compensation” that is constitutionally required by. Here, however, a statute requires the Turnpike Authority to deposit into “a special trust fund” an “amount at least equal to twice the aggregate amount deposited with the Clerk of the Superior Court.” As a consequence, the Court refused to order the Authority to make an additional deposit into the court.