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City of Passaic v. Shennett

390 N.J. Super. 475, 915 A.2d 1092 (App. Div. 2007)

CONDEMNATION; NOTICE — Where a condemning authority easily could obtain the property owner’s address from its own records, that authority violates statutory requirements and denies the property owner of constitutional due process if it fails to serve a condemnation notice, making it mandatory that the condemnation procedure begin anew even if the statute of limitations has already expired.

An individual was conveyed land by a family member. The land had been in the family for over fifty years. After the conveyance, a house situated on the land burned down and the lot remained vacant. The individual continued to pay property taxes for nearly two decades. Thereafter, the municipality instituted a condemnation action alleging that the land had been abandoned. Significantly, the taxes on the land were fully paid. Nonetheless, the municipality mailed a notice to the individual, which was returned for omitting the individual’s apartment designation. The municipality also publicized the condemnation proceeding in the local newspaper. After proceeding unopposed, the municipality was successful in procuring an order from the lower court authorizing it to acquire the property, appointing commissioners to appraise the land, and fixing compensation for the taking pursuant to eminent domain. The municipality deposited the requisite sum with the court and took title to the property.

Subsequently, the municipality sold the property to an asset management company. When the individual did not receive a property tax statement, he discovered that the property had been condemned, sold, and that the asset management company had already erected a new home. The individual moved to vacate the condemnation and valuation orders, citing lack of service of process, erroneous findings of abandonment, undervaluation of the property, and lack of notice of the commissioner’s hearings. The lower court noted that the municipality never attempted to personally serve the individual with proper notice; still, because the property had already been sold and construction had begun, the lower court refused to vacate the judgment. The lower court did, however, grant the individual’s motion to vacate the valuation order. Then, a hearing was held, the individual was given notice, and the property was valued at a significantly higher figure.

The individual appealed the lower court’s refusal to vacate its initial order of condemnation and the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the proper service is a prerequisite to a condemnation complaint under state law. Furthermore, under state law, the municipality was required to engage in bona fide negotiations with the prospective condemnee unless the condemnee is unknown, out of state, or for other good cause shown. Since the municipality could have easily obtained the individual’s address from its own tax rolls, the municipality violated the statutory requirements. Moreover, the Court pointed out that the notice requirement was jurisdictional. Federal constitutional due process requires that a default judgment be vacated when lack of jurisdiction is apparent, and thus the lower court’s decision to revisit only the question of valuation was an inadequate remedy. It followed that the lower court’s judgment was void and could be vacated, the statute of limitations notwithstanding.

Thus, the lower court’s denial of the individual’s motion to vacate the judgment of condemnation was reversed and remanded for further consideration.

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