Municipal Planning and Zoning Boards Lack Power Over State University Development Proposals

Montclair State University v. County of Passaic, 451 N.J. Super. 523 (App. Div. 2017).  The Municipal Land Use Law, N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 et seq., places responsibility for development applications within a particular municipality in the hands of a Planning Board and/or a Zoning Board of Adjustment.  There can also be a role for a County Planning Board.  But some property owners are not subject to the oversight of those municipal agencies.  In Rutgers v. Piluso, 60 N.J. 142 (1972), the Supreme Court held a municipality had no power over an application by Rutgers, a state university, that involved property located entirely on its own campus.  The issue in today’s decision by Judge Rothstadt was whether that Rutgers doctrine applied where Montclair State University sought to construct a roadway, on its own property, that intersected with a county road.  The panel concluded that Rutgers did apply.

Before filing its complaint in this matter, MSU had spent six years conferring with defendants County of Passaic and City of Clifton regarding defendants’ concerns about the project.  The parties’ professionals met repeatedly and ironed out most of those concerns.  MSU filed an application with the County for a permit to install traffic controls at the intersection, and the University asserted that it was exempt under Rutgers from the need to seek approvals from the City.  The County did not act, so MSU filed suit for a declaratory judgment that MSU was entitled to the permit.

The Law Division ruled, on an order to show cause, that MSU needed an updated traffic study.  MSU did that, and its expert found no safety issue with the roadway.  An expert for defendants, however, concluded that the roadway did not meet certain standards of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation.  The experts conferred and made some progress, but ultimately did not agree on all issues.  The parties returned to the Law Division, which dismissed MSU’s complaint and directed that a fuller record be made before the Township and/or County Planning Board.

MSU appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed.  Rutgers and subsequent cases established that state universities have immunity from local land use regulations, though that immunity is “not completely unbridled and must not be exercised in an unreasonable fashion so as to arbitrarily override all important legitimate local interests.”  The university “ought to consult with the local authorities,” consider their concerns, and act reasonably in addressing them.  Judge Rothstadt emphasized, though, that “[a] difference of opinion as to the best method to address a local traffic safety concern” does not mean that the university acted unreasonably.

Whether MSU acted reasonably was for a court to determine, and was “not conditioned upon consideration by a local zoning board.”  Accordingly, Judge Rothstadt reinstated the case, remanded the issue of MSU’s reasonableness for consideration by the Law Division, and confirmed that if an evidentiary hearing were needed to supplement the extensive record of the history of the parties’ interactions regarding the road, the Law Division judge should conduct that hearing.