State of New Jersey v. Trap Rock Industries, Inc.

331 N.J. Super. 258, 751 A.2d 633 (App. Div. 2000)
  • Opinion Date: February 3, 2000

CONDEMNATION; HIGHWAYS—The Department of Transportation has the authority to condemn land remote from a highway for the purpose of achieving environmental mitigation.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT), after examining eleven alternatives, selected a plan to build a highway along the Delaware River. The project impacted areas of shallow water habitat and portions of vegetated shoreline. To compensate for the lost habitat, the DOT proposed a mitigation plan that required acquiring land not directly connected with the highway. After looking at many properties, it settled upon a piece of vacant land located about 0.8 mile south of the highway. The property owner objected and the DOT proceeded to condemn the land. The property owner contended that the DOT lacked the statutory authority to do so and argued that under the Limited Access Highway Act, the DOT was not authorized to take “property for purposes incidental or ancillary to the actual roadway itself, or in addition to ... specifically enumerated reasons provided in the statute.” As a result, the property owner concluded that the DOT lacked the authority to take its property for purposes of environmental mitigation. The Legislature has authorized the DOT to condemn property for the maintenance and construction of state highways. It also has made it abundantly clear that such powers are broad. Even though “[t]he power of condemnation being in derogation of private property rights, it is required to be strictly construed and all statutory prerequisites must be established to sustain its exercise,” nonetheless, “‘the general powers to condemn for purposes of state highways’ should be liberally construed to reflect [Title 27’s] purpose, the building of state highways.” The property owner did not argue that the DOT lacked broad powers, but rather that the Legislature had curtailed the DOT’s power to condemn when dealing with limited-access highways specifically. It cited specific sections of N.J.S. 27:7A-3 and -4.1 as limiting the DOT’s authority to condemn private property to the actual traveled way and for maintenance and protection of the highway. According to the property owner, because these sections do not “specifically list the environmental mitigation of property needed for a limited access highway, the Commissioner does not have power to condemn for purposes of environmental mitigation.” The Court refused to join the property owner in what appeared “to be a rather strange reading of the DOT’s authority to condemn property.” It refused to interpret the statute in such a way as would frustrate the legislative purpose and intent underlying the statute. The Transportation Act has, as one of its purposes, the establishment of means “whereby the full resources of the State can be used and applied in a coordinated and integrated matter to solve or assist in the solution of the problems of all modes of transportation ...,” including the specific task of building roads. According to the Court, if the DOT were precluded from acquiring a property through condemnation for the purposes of satisfying environmental mitigation concerns, then the DOT’s ability to construct highways and roadways would be seriously impeded. Accordingly, the cited statutes were held not to curb the DOT’s general powers, only to restrict the use of limited access highways and to prohibit commercial activities by the DOT. The property owner also argued that the DOT could not take an entire lot or block of land where the entire lot or block was not necessary for “transportation” purposes. The Court held that N.J.S. 27:7A-4.1 actually expanded the DOT’s powers, allowing it to take more property for purposes of limited access highways than is necessary. The Court, noting that this issue was a novel one in New Jersey, examined other cases in other jurisdictions, and found those cases to be instructive and supportive of the Court’s own ruling. Further, the Court refused to second guess the DOT’s choice of construction design.