Malanga v. Township of West Orange, ___ N.J. ___ (2023). The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1 et seq. (“LHRL”), allows a municipality to declare a property “in need of redevelopment” if the property suffers from “obsolescence,” “faulty arrangement,” or “obsolete layout” and as a result is “detrimental to the … welfare of the community.” West Orange so designated its township library, an aging building that needed improvements. That designation “would empower the Township to take down the library and redevelop the site, working with a private developer of its choosing,” as Chief Justice Rabner stated in his unanimous opinion for the Court in this case.
Plaintiff challenged that designation, but the Law Division dismissed his complaint. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court, however, granted review and reversed, vacating the “in need of development” designation.
The Court recognized that “[a] presumption of validity attaches to a town’s conclusion that an area is in need of redevelopment.” Such a designation receives “deference” if supported by “substantial evidence on the record.” But municipal discretion in this area “is not unfettered,” the Chief Justice said, and courts are not a “rubber stamp.” That set the standard of review for this case.
The evidence was that the library building needed upgrades, improvements, or repairs, some occasioned by normal wear and tear. It had capped asbestos. Some areas were cramped, and there were not enough computers or the capacity to add enough more computers. There were other issues with the building, which had been constructed in 1959 and expanded in 1979. Nonetheless, “the Library attracted tens of thousands of visitors and was used more than 150,000 times a year.”
After discussing the structure and history of the LHRL and providing definitions for its key terms, the Court held that the record did not support “obsolescence.” The Chief Justice then evaluated the evidence of “faulty arrangement,” or “obsolete layout” and found it a “close question” as to whether there was substantial evidence of that in the record.
But the requirement that the arrangement or layout be “detrimental to the community” defeated the Township. “Detriment,” the Chief Justice said, means “actual harm; it cannot be presumed.” There was not substantial evidence of actual harm.
For example, “[n]o one can quarrel with the general point that additional computers and programming at the Library could serve the community better. But that does not demonstrate that the building was causing actual harm, as the statute requires.” And “needed repair work does not necessarily establish actual harm.” Neither did the presence of capped asbestos. The asbestos would need to be abated if renovations were made, but the Township’s consultant acknowledged that “the Library was safe to visit despite the presence of capped asbestos.”
Since there was no substantial evidence to support the idea that any faulty or obsolete arrangement or layout resulted in detriment to the community, the Court undid the “in need of redevelopment” designation for the library site. The Township stated at oral argument that it was in the process of building a new “state of the art library” outside of the municipal complex. So West Orange will still afford access to library facilities in the Township.