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Steeplechase Village, Inc. v. Township of Egg Harbor

2006 WL 2000032 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

MOBILE HOME PARKS; EQUAL PROTECTION — A mobile home park owner would be hard pressed to argue that it was being discriminated against invidiously just because other, non-mobile home landlords, did not have to factor trash collection into their rents, but if the owner actually asserts the rights of its residents, it might have standing to pursue such an action.

A municipality did not collect solid waste at a particular manufactured home community or any of the other mobile home parks within its borders. When the owner of the manufactured home community requested that the municipality commence collection, the municipality refused. The owner then sued, alleging that the municipality was treating mobile home parks differently than other residences in the community for no valid reason. It contended this violated the owner’s due process and equal protection rights. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the municipality, thus dismissing the complaint. The owner appealed.

In framing the issues on appeal, the Appellate Division explained that under the pertinent rent control ordinance, landlords were entitled to an annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase. The owner argued that the cost of sold waste collection escalated substantially and that the annual CPI increase was inadequate to cover the cost. The Court noted, however, that rather than apply for an additional rent increase, a process which the owner claimed was cumbersome, they sought to compel the municipality to collect its trash. It also noted that the municipality gave no reason for refusing to collect from mobile home parks except that the service was already being provided by the mobile park owners and that the individual mobile homes were not taxed as real property. Essentially, the municipality’s excuse was that it was not being paid for providing the service. The Court continued to note that areas in the litigation lacking factual clarity and opposing representations made by the parties left the Court asking more questions and unable to make any determinations.

The Court also addressed the issue of the owner’s standing to argue that its due process and equal protection rights were deprived. The Court explained that if the owner was truly asserting its own rights, its task would be a difficult one because of the uniqueness of mobile home parks and their real property tax status. Further, the Court found that the owner was similarly situated in that regard only with respect to landlords of the other mobile home parks, and they were all being treated the same by the municipality. The Court felt that the owner would be hard pressed to argue that it was being discriminated against invidiously because other landlords did not have to factor trash collection into their rents. Conversely, if the community’s owner actually was asserting the rights of its residents, its standing would have to be addressed.

The Appellate Division concluded that its analysis of the case was somewhat in a vacuum, with a real dearth of factual perspective. Noting that the decision in the case could have far-reaching consequences, the Court determined that a clearer factual picture was required before rendering its ultimate legal determination. Accordingly, the Court remanded the matter for further proceedings to enable a more informed determination of whether the municipality’s mobile home park’s argument was sustainable.

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