NJ Supreme Court – Malanga v West Orange – Redevelopment Criteria “d” Interpreted

by: Joseph Grather
15 Mar 2023

Hot off the presses, Chief Justice Rabner issued the Court’s unanimous opinion on Monday reversing a “blight” designation by the Township of West Orange. The full opinion is here.

While we are still digesting the opinion, I believe its the first substantive interpretation of criterion “d” by our Supreme Court since Wilson v. City of Long Branch (1958), which construed a prior version of “d” under the “Blighted Areas Act” (still fact checking).  It is certainly the first substantive redevelopment case since Gallenthin (2008) and 62-64 Main St. v Hackensack (2015). (both primarily dealt with the interpretation of section “e”).

Getting to the facts of the case, the question presented was “whether the Township of West Orange properly designated the site of its public library as an area in need of redevelopment under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL).” (Personal aside, my grandmother lived in the apartment building next to the public library for decades).  A public library that – as of 2019 – served 150,000 citizens a year.

“Under the LRHL, property that (1) suffers from “obsolescence” faulty arrangement” or obsolete layout” and (2) as a result is “detrimental to the . . . welfare of the community” can be found “to be in need of redevelopment. N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5(d).”  The Court excerpted those sections of the statute because the Township relied upon those criteria to designate the property in need of redevelopment.

I will save the Township’s “reasons” for the selection of the library parcel for the editorial page, but quickly note that the Township argued that the case was “moot” because it had authorized the sale of the property to a private developer to build affordable housing under a different statute, the Local Lands and Buildings Law.  When pressed at argument, Township counsel conceded that the redevelopment designation was “still in force” and the “Township would want the destination to remain in place” in the event the deal did not close.  To the extent the Court was giving the Township a way out, it chose poorly.

If that didn’t give it away, the Court reversed because the “record did not establish that it suffered from obsolescence, faulty arrangement, or obsolete layout in a way that harmed the welfare of the community.” (Slip op. at 3).  “To designate property for redevelopment under the law, a municipality must demonstrate that certain specified problems exist and that they cause actual detriment or harm.  Because there is insufficient evidence in the record to meet that standard and designate the Library an area in need of redevelopment, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate  Division.”

More to come.