Appellate Court Reaffirms Bedrock Condemnation Principles In Dismissing Complaint

by Joseph Grather / New Jersey Condemnation Law 

This week, a New Jersey appellate court reversed a trial court judgment allowing a condemnation action to proceed in the face of the property owner’s objection that the government has failed to engage in bona fide negotiations pre-complaint.  New United Corp. v. Essex County Vo-Tech.

There appears to have been a long-standing dispute, prior and pending litigation between the property owner/appellant and Essex County related to the subject property – one of three commercial condominium properties in Newark, the other two being owned by the County.

But, the condemnation aspects of the procedural history are straight-forward.

Once the Board of Education passed a resolution authorizing acquisition of the subject property, an offer was made to the property owner based on a written appraisal supplied with the offer.  Immediately in response to that offer and appraisal, the property owner supplied the condemnor with its own appraisal, leases encumbering the subject property, information about the current zoning, and requested particular information from the condemnor. The property owner then wrote a second letter to the condemnor alleging violations of the Eminent Domain Act.  The condemnor ignored both letters and filed its condemnation complaint.

The Appellate Division found the condemnor’s failures fatal and reversed the judgment authorizing the right to take.  The court relied on long-standing precedent that underscore the jurisdictional requirement of bona fide negotiations, including: County of Morris v. Weiner, 222 N.J. Super. 560; County of Morris v. 8 Court St. Ltd., 222 N.J. Super. 35., and City of Atlantic City v. Cynwyd Investments, 148 N.J. 55.

The policy behind requiring government agencies to conduct bona fide negotiations is rooted in the recognition that property owners do not choose to have their properties taken via eminent domain, that government agencies must deal forthrightly by making their best offers up front, and must exert diligent efforts to avoid unnecessary litigation, leaving condemnation as a last resort.  Once again, these principles prevailed and the government in New United was held to have proceeded too hastily.

Originally published by New Jersey Condemnation Law; republished with permission

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