Land Use and Development

The Opportunity Zone program enacted as part of the 2017 federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is designed to spark long-term capital investment into low-income and urban communities. The 169 Opportunity Zones (or tracts) designated in New Jersey by Governor Murphy are a complete game changer and contain attractive investment incentives for developers and investors.

Via the Opportunity Zone program, developers and investors can tap into and reinvest their unrealized capital gains without paying capital gains for a period of time, if at all. For example, capital gains invested or reinvested in an Opportunity Fund will receive a step up in basis of 10 percent if held for at least five years and by an additional 5 percent if held for at least 7 years, excluding up to 15 percent of the original gain from taxation.

An even greater savings is realized if the investment in the Opportunity Fund is held for at least 10 years. The gain accrued while invested is permanently excluded from taxable income of capital gains upon the sale or exchange of the investment.

With these tax incentives in place, Senator Corey Booker (NJ) believes the barriers between communities and the capital needed to generate economic growth and opportunity will be broken down.

The Opportunity Zones were designated based on key economic indicators in certain neighborhoods and communities such as income, unemployment rate and property values but also consideration was given to accessibility to mass transit and the value of existing investments. The 169 tracts were approved by the US Department of the Treasury on April 9, 2018. You can view the interactive map of designated Opportunity Zones for New Jersey by clicking here.

The pitfalls of failing to provide statutorily required public notice in the land use context were once again recently addressed by the Appellate Division in Concerned Citizens of Livingston v. Township of Livingston, (A-4171-15T3, decided June 11, 2018).  There, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court decision and found that the underlying zoning amendment, upon which a development applicant relied, was invalid due to notice deficiencies.

In Concerned Citizens, the Township of Livingston sought to amend its zoning ordinance to liberalize the conditions associated with locating an assisted living facility in its R-1 residential district.  Specifically, although an assisted living use was originally permitted as a conditional use in the zone, the amendment permitted such facilities to be of increased density that is, allowing for even more assisted living units on smaller parcels.  In conjunction with this amendment the governing body conducted the necessary hearings and ultimately amended the zoning district.

Acting on the newly adopted zoning amendment, a developer filed an application with the municipal planning board to develop an assisted living facility consistent with the requirements of the newly amended R-1 zone.  As hearings before the board commenced with respect to this assisted living project, a group of concerned citizens filed suit in the trial court seeking to overturn the adoption of the amended zoning district.  Because this action was filed beyond 45-days from the Township’s publication of the newly enacted zoning ordinance, the trial court summarily dismissed the appeal as untimely.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed.

Because the increase in permitted density of assisted living facilities in the R-1 district was found to be tantamount to a “change” in the “classification” of a zoning district, the Appellate Division held that the more onerous notice requirements of N.J.S.A. 40:55D-62.1, requiring personal written notice, were triggered.  Under the circumstances, the Appellate Division held that the municipality was required to provide written notice, via personal service or by regular and certified mail, to all property owners entitled to receive notice at least 10 days prior to the hearing at which time the zoning amendment was to be considered.  Specifically, that meant that such personal notice was to have been provided to all property owners located within the affected district in which the classification change was proposed, and also to all property owners located within 200 feet in all directions of the proposed boundaries of the affected district.  Instead, the municipal clerk merely provided notice by publication only, in conflict with the statutory requirements.

Citing to well-established authorities, the appellate court found that “strict compliance with statutory notice requirements is mandatory and jurisdictional, and non-conformity renders the governing body’s resultant action (adoption of the zoning amendment in question) a nullity.”  (See Rockaway Shoprite Assocs., Inc. v. City of Linden, 424 N.J. Super. 337 (App. Div. 2011); Cox & Koenig, New Jersey Land Use Administration, § 10-2.3 at 159 (2018) (citing Robert James Pacilli Homes, LLC v. Township of Woolwich, 394 N.J. Super. 319 at 333 (App. Div. 2007)).  Due to this notice defect, the zoning ordinance amending the R-1 district requirements was deemed invalid.

Consequently, although the complaint of the citizens group was originally dismissed by the trial court as being filed well beyond the typical 45-day prerogative writ action appeal period, as prescribed by Rule 4:69, the Appellate Division held that the failure to file the complaint within this time frame was excusable because of the defective notice.  Moreover, since the greater public good was involved (concerning the interests of property owners located within an entire zoning district and beyond), the relaxation of the 45-day appeal period, as expressly afforded by Rule 4:69, was also held to be appropriate in this instance.

In the end, while Concerned Citizens is unpublished, it remains persuasive as it applies well-established law concerning the requirements of public notice.  It also warrants careful consideration as the court’s holding further signals a championing of due process concerns over the strict construction of the 45-day appeal period where the interests of justice are implicated.

The New York City Building Code, Chapter 33, requires a developer to safeguard adjoining property during the conduct of all construction and demolition operations. Accordingly, a developer and an adjoining property owner may enter into a license agreement, whereby the adjoining property owner provides the developer with access to its property to install Code-required protections.  In return, oftentimes the developer, among other things, pays compensation to the adjoining property owner for such access.  If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the developer may seek to compel such access through the courts pursuant to Section 881 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law.

While the Building Code does not explicitly provide a right to compensation, when these issues have been brought before them, New York courts have awarded compensation to adjoining property owners.  However, whether compensation is mandated and the amount of compensation is within the courts’ discretion.  Courts often consider the length of time for which access is necessary and the intrusiveness of the developer’s work on the use and enjoyment of the adjoining property by its owner and occupants.  Without clear guidance from the courts, a developer and an adjoining property owner need to give due consideration to the issue of compensation as illustrated below.

In her ruling released late last month, Manhattan Judge Arlene Bluth denied any license fee to the Condominium Board of the Fifth Avenue Tower, an adjoining property owner to the New York Public Library.  The Library will conduct a $200 million overhaul of its main Fifth Avenue branch.  In her decision, Judge Bluth specifically rejected the Condominium Board’s request for a $15,000 / month license fee.  It has been separately reported that the Condominium Board rejected the Library’s offer of a $3,500 / month license fee.  It appears that Judge Bluth may have denied any license fee to the Condominium Board based, at least in part, on the excessiveness of its demands.

In view of the lack of clear guidelines, developers and adjoining property owners should consult with their legal counsel and should be sure not to overplay their hands when negotiating license fees.

Parties objecting to development projects have traditionally been immunized from liability for common law torts, such as malicious prosecution, abuse of process and tortious interference.  This immunity, grounded in the well-recognized Noerr-Pennington doctrine, affords immunity to those who petition the government for redress.  (See  Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc. 365 U.S.  127 (1961); United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965) (holding that parties seeking relief from the government are generally afforded immunity unless such actions are objectively baseless).

While the immunity afforded objectors has been a difficult one to breach, recent decisions suggest that actions brought against these objectors require careful review of the facts and underlying circumstances before they can be summarily dismissed.  In order to overcome Noerr-Pennington immunity, a litigant must satisfy a two-prong test:  First, proof must be established that the actions of the objector were “objectively baseless,” meaning no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits of its claims.  Second, proofs must also establish that the conduct in question was brought with the specific intent to further wrongful conduct through the use of the governmental process – as opposed to the outcome of that process.  Importantly, the second prong is only considered if the challenged litigation is first found to be objectively meritless.

Recently, however, meeting the first prong has been made easier by our court’s consideration of an objector’s track record and the presence of other repeated failed filings.  (See Main Street at Woolwich, LLC v. Ammons Supermarket, Inc. 451 N.J. Super. 135 (App. Div. 2017).  In Main Street, the court relied upon a Third Circuit decision in holding that the trial court failed to properly consider the defendant’s alleged pattern of sham litigation.  Hanover 3201 Realty, LLC v. Village Supermarkets, Inc. 806 F.3d 162, 180 (3rd Cir. 2015), cert. denied __ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 2451 (2016).  By demonstrating that an objector has engaged in a series of unsuccessful administrative and/or court challenges, developers can establish that this activity represents a pattern of utilizing the process to serve the anticompetitive purpose of injuring market rivals.  Under such circumstances, a court could very well conclude that the claims of such objectors were not brought to redress any actual grievances, but rather to promote delay and cause injury.  Accordingly, this broad immunity can be lost where the conduct at issue is merely intended to interfere directly with the business relationships of a competitor.

As a consequence, before filing any action seeking government redress, a putative objector, much like any other litigant, should carefully evaluate the bases for its objections with a legal professional to ensure that they are both grounded in fact as well as supported by sound legal underpinnings.  To do otherwise is to invite abuse of process type claims that now have a much greater likelihood of success.  Reviewing any possible strategy that involves objecting to a rival’s application for development is now, more than ever, a critically important step to insulating the objector from exposure to counter-suits that were previously viewed as questionable nuisance type actions.

In a decision that bodes well for developers, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld the enforceability of a long-term settlement agreement between certain Jersey City property developers (the “Developers”) and the City Council of Jersey City (the “City”).  The Agreement stems from a 2010 dispute in which the City “downgraded” the zoning of certain property owned by the Developers in Journal Square (the “Properties”), which restricted their ability to construct a high-rise condominium near the PATH station.  In Robinhood Plaza, Inc. v. City Council of City of Jersey City, Docket No. A-1070-15T2, 2017, WL 2535913, at *1 (App. Div. June 9, 2017), the Developers filed a complaint claiming that this “downgrade of zoning” violated the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (“LRHL”), a statute intended to streamline and promote the development process.

The parties ultimately entered into a settlement agreement (the “Agreement”) whereby the Developers agreed to dedicate certain land to the City for public use, in exchange for the City’s adoption of an ordinance allowing the Developers to construct and maintain a high-rise condominium for a period of 50 years.  The City subsequently claimed that the Agreement was null and void because it created an undue restraint on the ability of the City to perform legislative functions in the future.  Both the trial court and the Appellate Division ultimately concluded that the Agreement was fully enforceable.  According to the Appellate Division, the purpose of the LRHL is to promote the development of long-term projects and the Court concluded that the City had the authority to enter into the Agreement and was bound by its terms.

While the decision is not precedential, it certainly demonstrates that our Courts are inclined to enforce governmental redevelopment agreements even when they span lengthy periods and will have the effect of binding subsequent governing bodies.