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

318 N.J. Super. 385, 724 A.2d 267 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: February 17, 1999

RAILROADS; REGULATION—If the federal Surface Transportation Board declines to hear a municipality’s public nuisance claim against a railroad on its merits or decides that state law is not preempted, then a state court may adjudicate the claim.

A municipality sought to enjoin a railroad from using property the railroad owned as a right-of-way for a railroad maintenance facility. The municipality’s residents were complaining of continuous noise, vibrations, soot, unpleasant odor, bright lights, fuel leakage, and a reduction of their property values. In 1992, the railroad relocated its maintenance facility to the right-of-way but did not obtain any construction or land-use permits from the municipality and refused to allow the municipality to perform any routine safety, health and fire inspections of the railroad’s facilities. The railroad alleged that federal preemption prevents a municipality from invoking routine local police powers. The lower court dismissed the municipality’s complaint, essentially on federal preemption grounds. The railroad argued before the lower court that the maintenance facility was not “a maintenance yard in the truest sense” but that it was “just a refueling stop.” It explained that long-range trains, coming from the West Coast, carrying containers shipped from the Far East, ultimately used the maintenance yard. The railroad said there was no way of predicting when the trains arrive. The containers remained under U.S. Custom seal until they arrive at the railroad facility, where the Customs officers broke the container’s seals. The railroad said that it refueled and reoiled the long-range trains at the facility. Based on such testimony, the lower court concluded that the railroad’s activities in the municipality included fueling, oiling and sanding the trains, all of which promoted overall railroad operation. Therefore, it ruled the ICC Termination Act preempted state regulatory authority over such operations. The municipality argued that the Act did not completely preempt the police powers of the state and its municipalities, but only those local regulations that conflict with or frustrate Congress’ delegation of regulatory authority to the [Surface Transportation Board], which within its scope, is exclusive. After hearing argument, the Appellate Division began its preemption analysis on the assumption that state police powers are not preempted unless such was the clear purpose of Congress. Under the Act, the federal Surface Transportation Board has jurisdiction over “transportation” by “rail carrier” that is (a) only by “railroad… .” The Act defines “transportation” as a locomotive, car, . ... and defines a “railroad” as including “a switch, spur, tract, terminal, ... necessary for transportation.” A “rail carrier” is defined as “a person providing common carrier railroad transportation for compensation. “. Further, the language of the statute does not expressly limit preemption to strictly “economic regulation,” nor does it recite that states retain historic police powers over railroads and their properties. After analysis of case law throughout the country, the Appellate Division concluded that the concerns raised by the municipality were a matter at least for the primary jurisdiction of the responsible agency, the Service Transportation Board, if not ultimately one of total federal preemption. Consequently, it concluded that the municipality must submit its claim to the Service Transportation Board for resolution, because to do otherwise would be to invade the preempted area of exclusive federal regulation. However, if the Board determines that state law need not be fully preempted or if it declines to consider the municipality’s complaints on the merits, the Appellate Division concluded that it would construe that as a signal that there is no Federal preemption under the circumstances, giving state courts the right, on appropriate or timely application, to resurrect the action and to adjudicate the merits of the public nuisance claims. In essence, if the Surface Transportation Board would not regulate the railroad’s site, the Court would not allow the site to forever remain in regulatory “no-man’s land.”