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Save Bedminsters Green, Inc. v. Township of Bedminster

A-6128-02T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

GREEN ACRES; PUBLIC USE; VACATION—Municipalities have broad discretion to vacate any lands dedicated to public use, but must do so in a procedurally correct way.

In 1970, owners of land adjacent to property owned by a municipality entered into a covenant with the municipality. The owners agreed that a portion of the land would remain unencumbered by any building or structure. Furthermore, the covenant was to be binding on all future owners of the land. In 1989, the municipality acquired the adjacent land using funding from the New Jersey Green Acres Land Acquisition and Recreational Opportunities Act. In 1995, the municipality subdivided the land into two separate lots. One lot was dedicated for active recreational facilities; the other for conservation. The sub-division was effectuated by a deed from the municipality to itself, which contained certain restrictions on the use of the land designated for conservation. In 2002, the municipality carved out a parcel from the designated conservation area for the purpose of active recreation, including for ball fields. The municipality did this by adopting an ordinance authorizing the execution of a corrective deed. Neither the ordinance nor its published notice alerted the general public as to the purpose of the corrective deed. It didn’t even mention the land designated for conservation. The ordinance also failed to state that the carved-out parcel had been subject to deed restrictions, and that these restrictions would be extinguished by the corrective deed.

An environmental organization challenged the municipality’s action. The lower court rejected the organization’s arguments and dismissed its complaint. It held that even though the public notice was “facially defective” because it made no mention of the new ball fields, it still found that the notice was sufficient because it was published in local newspapers. Furthermore, the corrective deed could be examined at the municipal building and doing so would disclose the affected lot and block numbers.

The Appellate Division approached this matter differently. According to it, even though the proposed active recreation use was contrary to the 1995 deed restrictions, it still could have been permissible if the municipality’s governing body made a predicate finding that the dedicated land was unsuited for the designated public use or that it was disadvantageous to the public. Here, however, the municipality failed to make such a finding. In fact, the corrective deed ordinance was completely devoid of such a declaration. The Court also held that the adoption of the ordinance violated statutorily required notice and publication requirements. The notice did not specifically state the reason why the deed was being “corrected,” nor did it advise that the affected block and lot referred was a part of the conservation area. Notice to the public must provide the public with detailed information so that the public can fully appreciate an ordinance’s purpose.

The environmental organization also argued that the corrective deed ordinance did not authorize the municipality to modify a public dedication for conservation. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that municipalities have broad discretion to vacate any lands dedicated to public use. Thus, although the municipality’s notice was procedurally deficient and the change in use void, the Court found no substantive deficiency in the municipality’s actions.


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