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Sod Farm Associates v. Township of Springfield

366 N.J. Super. 116, 840 A.2d 885 (App. Div. 2004)

AFFORDABLE HOUSING; COAH; APPEALS—Although it would appear that a party is permitted to litigate an affordable housing matter once it has been before the Council on Affordable Housing for six months without action, the six month period is flexible if the cause of the delay in achieving a resolution is not solely that of the Council; sole jurisdiction over inaction by the Council lies in the Appellate Division.

A municipality submitted various locations to be designated as affordable housing zones in accordance with its affordable housing compliance plan. It faced local opposition and claims later in the lower court. The municipality and the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) argued that the lower court should have dismissed the claims because those bringing the suit had not exhausted all administrative remedies before the COAH prior to litigation. The lower court found that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) gives the COAH six months to resolve disputes before suits can be filed. After that time, a party is permitted to litigate even if all administrative remedies have not been exhausted. The lower court felt that this six-month limitation applied in all cases and since the dispute was in front of the COAH for more than six months, the parties were able to litigate.

The Appellate Court disagreed. It held that the statute was ambiguous and did not clearly state that the six month provision should be strictly applied. The Court noted that the lower court’s reading was unrealistic, especially where competing property owners interpose objections and file numerous motions that cause delay. Although the lower court correctly attributed the delay in this case to COAH, it failed to note the opposing party’s involvement in that delay. The opponents disagreed with many of the municipality’s proposals, and these challenges led to numerous delays. Furthermore, the municipality’s efforts to comply with the FHA should not have been penalized by delay in the COAH’s administrative process. This was not the intention of the Legislature when it established the six-month time limit.

In addition to arguing exhaustion of administrative remedies as a bar, the municipality and the COAH argued that the appropriate jurisdiction for this action was the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division agreed, holding that a party claiming to be adversely affected by an administrative agency’s alleged inaction may seek leave to appeal directly to the Appellate Division. These rules were adopted with the creation of the New Jersey Constitution of 1947 that provided for review of a state or local administrative agency action or inaction by the Superior Court without having to apply for a prerogative writ. This relief was prescribed because of widespread dissatisfaction over litigants losing their claims because of their incorrect choice of writ. As a result, the sole jurisdiction over challenges to the COAH’s actions on affordable housing lies in the Appellate Division.

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