Stonehill Property Owners Association, Inc. v. Township of Vernon

312 N.J. Super. 68, 711 A.2d 346 (App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: May 26, 1998

CONDOMINIUMS; HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATIONS; MUNICIPAL SERVICES—The court has interpreted the Municipal Services Act to explain how a municipality’s obligation to reimburse qualified private communities for privately furnished “municipal type” services is to be calculated.

This is an action by a property owners association seeking reimbursement from a municipality pursuant to the Municipal Services Act for the association’s costs of providing services such as the removal of snow and ice from its roads and the lighting of its streets. The association was a qualified private community within the municipality. In connection with the operation of its condominium properties, it paid for the cost of providing for essential services. As it has the right to do, the municipality elected not to provide those services directly. The Municipal Services Act provides that municipalities are required to reimburse qualified private communities for removal of snow and ice and for lighting of roads and streets or to provide those services to the community in the same fashion as the municipality provides for those services on public roads and streets. The issue involved in this case, therefore, dealt with how to calculate the amount of reimbursement. In essence, the question was whether a municipality must make reimbursement for the total cost incurred by a qualified private community in providing the designated services or if the reimbursement is limited to the level it would cost the municipality to provide the services “within a qualified private community in the same fashion as [it] provides [the] services on public roads and streets.” In reaching this ultimate question, it was necessary for the Court to determine (1) whether the length of the interior roadways and access to or through the parking lot should be added to the pure “roadways”; (2) to what extent, if any, a difficulty factor should be added to the municipality’s average snow removal cost for special cost increasing factors within the private community; (3) whether the electricity cost for lighting within the community is to be reimbursed in full or to be limited to cover only those lights located at intersections; and (4) whether the association was entitled to reimbursement for street sweeping costs. The Appellate Division, in substantially upholding the lower court, felt that the overriding principle was that the residents of a private village cannot expect reimbursement for specified municipal services furnished at a level greater than the services enjoyed by the rest of the municipality’s residents. The Court gleaned from the record that this particular community was operated at a high level of service. Consequently, the condominium community could not upgrade the municipal services for itself at the expense of the general taxpayers of the municipality.

With respect to the cost for snow and ice removal, the Court determined that because the private community was built on the side of a mountain, and was, in fact, terraced, the cost of snow removal for the very curvy, winding, and steep roads was much higher than the average road in the municipality. In the Court’s view, the obligation was to pay for the cost of plowing the more difficult roads and the municipality’s obligation to reimburse was not limited to the cost of plowing straight and level roads. The lower court estimated that the difficulty factor required a 50% increase over the municipality’s average cost to plow roads, and the Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s judgment. With respect to the length of the roads, the lower court characterized the entire roadway system as that to be used in calculating the reimbursement for snow and ice removal. In doing so, it rejected the municipality’s characterization of the driveways as “so called parking areas” because those areas were used as a basic way to facilitate vehicular traffic in the private community. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

With respect to street lighting, however, the municipality prevailed in asserting that throughout the rest of the municipality it maintains traffic lights only at intersections. In fact, the municipality had a maximum of 77 street lights interspersed along its 100 miles of public roads whereas the association had 387 street lights and a “vastly superior” system on its 6.38 miles of roads. In the view of the lower court, it was a reasonable standard to consider that only municipal roadway intersections were illuminated and that the association should be reimbursed only for the electricity required to light its streets in the “same fashion.” The street sweeping issue related to the removal of accumulated sand, gravel, or grit, following the snow removal season. The lower court opined, and the Appellate Division agreed, that such material could not be equated with the removal of “other obstructions” referred to in the Municipal Services Act. In the practical sense, sand, gravel, and grit are not generally considered to be “obstructions” when present on roadways even though vehicular traffic may be slowed somewhat by the presence of such material.