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Township of Readington v. Solberg Aviation Co.

409 N.J. Super. 282, 976 A.2d 1100 (App. Div. 2009)

CONDEMNATION — When a court reviews an ordinance approving condemnation of a property, it must look at objective factors, such as the terms of the ordinance, it’s operation and effect, and the context in which the ordinance was adopted and if the practical effects of the ordinance are contrary to the stated goals underlying the reason the exercise the powers of eminent domain, it will be invalidated.

An airport operator owned 726 acres of land. Approximately 102 acres were utilized as a small airport. In 1990, when it looked like a nearby airport might close, the owner, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) entered into discussions about using the owner’s airport as a replacement. The municipality objected to expansion of the airport. Although the transaction never took place, tension between the owner and the municipality increased. Over a three-year period, the municipality adopted at least five resolutions opposing any increase in the length of the airport runway. When the owner released a master plan and layout plan to develop its airport, including new and expanded runways, the municipality submitted objections to the FAA and DOT. When the owner received conditional approval of the plan from the FAA and DOT (subject to a successful environmental assessment), the mayor objected and publicly stated that the municipality would do whatever it took to prevent the expansion of the airport. Sometime later, the owner attempted to sell the airport to the DOT. This fell through.

The municipality then decided to acquire the farmland acres as well as the development rights for the airport’s parcels through condemnation. Its ordinance recited that the municipality had found that the public interest would be served by the acquisition of the property for public use and purposes, including open space and farmland preservation, land for recreational uses, conservation of natural resources, and preservation of community character. The ordinance authorized the acquisition of fee title to the farmland property as well as development rights. The municipality then filed a condemnation action and declaration of taking. The owner then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the municipality had no legitimate purpose in acquiring the property through condemnation and that the condemnation was only being done to limit the use of, and control, the airport. The municipality also filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the property was being condemned for use as open space which is a legitimate use of the power of eminent domain.

The lower court found in favor of the municipality and the owner appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the owner’s evidence strongly suggested that the municipality’s true motive in condemning its property was to control the growth and expansion of the airport. Although a municipality can use its power of eminent domain to acquire open space even if there is no current recreational purpose for that property or if its true purpose was to limit growth, it cannot utilize that power, even if it appears legitimate on its face, when doing so for a discriminatory reason or other improper purpose. The municipality argued that the motives behind a condemnation decision are irrelevant as long as the condemnation has a facially lawful purpose. The Court responded that, when considering a bad faith claim, courts traditionally distinguish between the motives of the individuals who adopted the legislation and the purposes of the condemnation. However, in determining the purpose, a court must look at objective factors, such as the terms of the ordinance, its operation and effect, and the context in which the ordinance was adopted. Here, the Court found that the objective factors surrounding the adoption of the condemnation ordinance impugned its validity.

The Court also noted that, while the ordinance stated that its purpose was to acquire the farmland property for open space and to acquire the development rights for airport preservation, the condemnation would not achieve those goals. If the municipality acquired the farmland and controlled development rights, the airport operator would not be able to expand and modernize the airport to make it profitable because it would not have sufficient land to expand the runways nor would it control the development of the airport property. Accordingly, the Court found that the practical effects of the ordinance were contrary to the stated goal of airport preservation. The Court also found that the stated purpose of acquiring the farmland property for open space could not be achieved because, under FAA requirements, the areas that were not occupied by runways, hangers, parking lots, etc. were required to remain unoccupied. In addition, the Court found that the context in which the ordinance was adopted disfavored the municipality. It noted that the owner and municipality, for many years, had argued over development and expansion of the property. Further, the municipality did not begin discussing acquisition of the property until after the owner had received conditional approval from the FAA and DOT to expand the airport. In addition, the Court noted that the municipality already had large tracts of open space and recreational property. Thus, there was no real need to acquire more property for that purpose. The Court concluded, based on these factors, that the municipality’s decision to condemn was tainted by its desire to control the airport.

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