50 Year Old Newark Blight Designation Invalidated
On August 16, 2019, the Honorable Thomas Vena, J.S.C. invalidated a 50-year-old blight designation of Plaintiff Benjamin Moore’s property in Newark, New Jersey. The full text of the opinion is a worthwhile read and can be found here. In one respect, it is a fountainhead decision because the Court invalidated a blight designation that had – up until two weeks ago – survived for half a century. On the other hand, after reading the opinion, one might think it incredible that such an unsubstantiated blight declaration could have survived for so long.
After disposing with the dueling arguments on the appropriateness of summary judgment in a prerogative writ action, Judge Vena addressed the merits of the application. In short, Benjamin Moore’s property in Newark was included in a designated redevelopment area in 1963. A redevelopment plan for the area was adopted in 1964 and was subsequently amended 15 times over the following decades. Initially, the Benjamin Moore property – which had been utilized as a manufacturing, research and development facility since 1925 – was slated for acquisition. Later, in 1969, the Redevelopment Plan was amended to “change the category of Benjamin Moore’s property in Lot 62 from “to be acquired” to “not to be acquired.” Presently, the entirety of Benjamin Moore’s property within the Designated Area remains “not to be acquired.”” Slip op. at 4.
Benjamin Moore claims that it wasn’t until January 2018, that it was notified for the first time “that its property was included in the blighted area to be redeveloped.” Benjamin Moore thus commenced a prerogative writ action to challenge the blight designation on due process and substantive grounds. The designated redeveloper and the City defended the action and countered the due process argument with R. 4:69’s 45 day statute of limitations.
Benjamin Moore prevailed on the notice argument, and the substantive challenge to the blight designation. On notice, the City produced a letter written to the Planning Board Secretary dated August 19, 1963, which stated that letters to individual property owners “should be delayed” until the Council acted on the resolution. The Court aptly noted: “In fact, the content of the letter seems to suggest the opposite: that the letters were never actually mailed to the property owners.” Slip op at 15. Accordingly, consistent with prevailing case-law (DeRose progeny), the Court found that the owner could challenge the 1963 Blight Designation beyond the 45- day limit.
After getting over the timeliness hurdle, the result was almost a fait accompli as the Court found the blight resolution “woefully inadequate” for a litany of reasons expressed in the opinion.
Having successfully represented several property owners saddled with this historic designation, the question now appears to be whether this case may help other owners in their fight against alleged redevelopment blight.