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Washington Township Municipal Utilities Authority v. Brennan-Brooks

A-4286-02T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

PUBLIC UTILITIES — A utility authority is under no obligation to readopt its rules when it extends its service area to a neighboring municipality so long as it fully complied with the Open Public Meetings Act when it originally adopted the rules.

A municipal public water and sewer authority was asked to extend its public water supply system into a portion of a neighboring municipality as part of a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved plan to remediate ground water contamination. The neighboring municipality adopted an ordinance allowing the utility authority to conduct these operations. Under its pre-existing rules and regulations, the authority prohibited private wells on any property connected to its water system unless the affected property owner received written approval from the authority.

The authority subsequently learned that five property owners who were connected to its system were planning to install private wells for landscape irrigation purposes, and advised the property owners that the wells were not permitted without authorization from the authority. When the owners continued to proceed with their plans, the utility authority filed for emergent judicial relief. The lower court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting the owners from using their private wells.

A non-jury trial was held and the lower court ruled in favor of the utility authority, finding that its rules and regulations were rationally related to: (a) public health and safety; (b) the economic viability of the public water supply system; and (c) to the conservation of water. The lower court entered a permanent injunction against the owners’ use of private wells on their property where water service is provided by the neighboring municipality’s utility system. One owner filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the municipality’s rule dealing with private wells had not been duly adopted when service was extended to the property owner’s municipality. The lower court denied the motion and ruled that the utility authority had fully complied with the Open Public Meetings Act when it originally adopted the rules, and there was no legal requirement to readopt the rules when it extended its service area into the neighboring municipality.

The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment entered in favor of the utility authority substantially for the reasons expressed by the lower court. The Court also stated that the authority was not equitably estopped from enforcing its rules, as no evidence suggested that the authority misrepresented or concealed a material fact for which any owner relied upon to its detriment. Lastly, the Court held that the municipality authority’s rule which prohibited an owner from using its private well when using the public water system was not a regulatory taking that entitled the owner to just compensation as such a ban did not violate an owner’s due process rights.

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