Village of Ridgefield Park v. New York Susquehanna & Western Railway Corporation

163 N.J. 446, 750 A.2d 57 (2000)
  • Opinion Date: April 5, 2000

RAILROADS; REGULATION—Railroads are exempt from the traditional permitting processes, but not from most other generally applicable laws, such as certain local fire, health, safety, and construction regulations.

A railway began construction of a train maintenance facility without applying for zoning or construction permits or otherwise informing the municipality of its plans. When the municipality complained, the railroad responded with certain information, but never applied for permits. The municipality filed suit, seeking a determination requiring the railroad to obtain municipal permits, to permit municipal inspections, to cease the maintenance of a public nuisance, and to cease operations at the maintenance facility until the municipal requirements were met. It alleged that the facility threatened the public health, safety, and welfare. The lower court and the Appellate Division each held that the Surface Transportation Board (STB), pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (ICCTA), had exclusive regulatory jurisdiction over matters relating to authorization of construction of railroad facilities. To allow the municipality to interfere with railroad activity would contravene the ICCTA’s stated purpose of decreased regulation of railroads. The Appellate Division did hold that if the STB relinquished its authority, then the municipality could impose its requirements on the railroad. The municipality appealed further to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but in the interim, the STB ruled that the ICCTA preempted all municipal zoning regulations as applied to railroads. It further found that local land use restrictions were preempted because they could be used to frustrate transportation-related activities and interfere with interstate commerce. The STB also determined that “although state and local government entities retain certain police powers and may apply non-discriminatory regulation to protect public health and safety, their actions must not have the effect of foreclosing or restricting the railroad’s ability to conduct its operations. With respect to building codes, the STB determined that railroads are exempt from the traditional permitting process but not from “most other generally applicable laws, such as certain local fire, health, safety, and construction regulations and inspections.” The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, stating that “preemption is not to be lightly presumed,” and holding that the STB’s preliminary decision was analytically consistent with New Jersey’s interpretation of the ICCTA. Further, a municipality may enforce its local fire, health, plumbing, safety, and construction regulations to the extent that they are applicable, and a railroad may not deny the municipality’s access for reasonable inspection, but no permits or site plan review could be required. Lastly, the Court held that New Jersey courts could not adjudicate common law nuisance claims against a railroad because to do so would infringe upon the STB’s exclusive jurisdiction over the location and operation of railroad facilities.