On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Burling, Francis, Hall and Schettino. For reversal -- Justices Jacobs and Proctor. The opinion of the court was delivered by Weintraub, C.J. Jacobs, J. (dissenting). Proctor, J. (dissenting).
The County of Bergen appeals from a judgment determining that its complaint fails to set forth a claim for relief. We certified the appeal on our motion before the Appellate Division acted upon it.
Defendant, The Port of New York Authority, is a body corporate and politic created by a compact between the States of New Jersey and New York (R.S. 32:1-4) with the consent of the Congress of the United States. (42 Stat. 174). It is an agency of both states to further their common interests within the jurisdiction committed to it. Port of New York Authority v. Weehawken Tp., 27 N.J. Super. 328, 333 (Ch. Div. 1953), reversed for reasons not here pertinent, 14 N.J. 570, 575 (1954).
The complaint alleges the Port Authority is authorized by Chapter 81 of the Laws of 1949 (N.J.S.A. 32:1-35.18 et seq.) to acquire real property for the air terminal known as Teterboro Airport in the Boroughs of Teterboro, Moonachie and Carlstadt in the County of Bergen; that pursuant to said statute and in accordance with Chapter 43 of the Laws of 1947 (N.J.S.A. 32:1-35.1 et seq.) the Port Authority acquired for the Teterboro Airport a plot described as Block 92 on the official assessment map of the Borough of Moonachie; that the Port Authority constructed an industrial building on said plot and leased it to defendant Jersey Screen and Storm Window Company, Inc. for a term of 20 years at an annual rental of $110,390 for the manufacture of metal windows and doors. This lease, the complaint charges, is unrelated to any air terminal purpose, and unless it is judicially declared that the Port Authority is without power to erect and lease buildings for
such uses, the Port Authority "may proceed with the construction and leasing of other buildings on its lands in a fashion similar to that described * * * using its governmental franchises to engage in private enterprises in direct competition with private capital and privately owned property and circumventing the tax laws of this State, thereby causing great loss and detriment to the County of Bergen and to the municipalities and inhabitants thereof and to the owners of property located therein." The complaint demands judgment declaring (1) the Port Authority lacks legal authority "to make leases of the type" mentioned above, and (2) that section 5 of Chapter 43 of the Laws of 1947 (N.J.S.A. 32:1-35.5) "insofar as it may purport to grant tax exemption" to the Port Authority with respect to property in such circumstances is unconstitutional.
The pivotal question is whether the county has an interest sufficient to support this action. The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is designed "to settle and afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status and other legal relations." N.J.S. 2 A:16-51. A person (including a municipal corporation) "whose rights, status or other legal relations are affected by a statute * * * may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the * * * statute * * * and obtain a declaration of rights, status or other legal relations thereunder." N.J.S. 2 A:16-53. This enumeration, N.J.S. 2 A:16-52 provides, does not exhaust the broad authority in the act "to declare rights, status and other legal relations." In essence, a plaintiff must have an interest in the subject matter in order to maintain a declaratory judgment action. This requirement reflects the wholesome general rule that litigation shall not be maintained by strangers to a controversy. Cf. New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Parsons, 3 N.J. 235, 240 (1959); New Jersey Bankers Ass'n v. Van Riper, 1 N.J. 193, 196 (1948). The trial court could find no interest in the county either in its own right or as a representative of others. We agree.
The complaint is drawn in most general terms. It does not specifically identify the right or legal relation the county seeks to protect. In presenting its argument before us the county expanded upon the subject which however remains quite obscure.
The complaint refers to the subject of exemption from taxation. It does not however seek to compel an assessment or to obtain an adjudication that the specific property leased by the Port Authority to the co-defendant is taxable. The prayer is that the statute be declared unconstitutional if it purports to grant exemption in the general circumstances alleged in the complaint and thus the issue is but obliquely suggested. Defendants deny the county is at all interested since its budgetary needs must be met by assessments by the taxing districts and its revenue does not depend upon the amount of taxable ratables. The county concedes this is true but argues that in determining the amount of its budget it cannot realistically ignore the total tax rate and hence is concerned with the amount of the ratables because of the impact thereof upon the dollar rate. It further points out that its borrowing capacity is hinged to the amount of ratables. R.S. 40:1-14 and 82; 40:2-38 and 49. In either aspect, the county's interest is indirect and rather remote. The same observation perhaps could be made with respect to a municipality's interest in the subject of exemption, but, as defendants point out, the Legislature placed the official responsibility in the municipality rather than in the county. It is the assessor of the municipality who makes the assessment. N.J.S.A. 54:4-12 and 23. Appeals are authorized to be prosecuted only by taxpayers and taxing districts. N.J.S.A. 54:3-21. Omitted property may be added by the county board on its own motion or upon the complaint of the collector of taxes, any taxpayer, or the taxing district or its governing body. N.J.S.A. 54:4-63.13. The county thus is not among those legislatively determined to be parties in interest.
The county however urges the present situation is exceptional since the Port Authority is empowered by section 5, Chapter 43 of the Laws of 1947 (N.J.S.A. 32:1-35.5) to agree with municipalities "for the payment of fair and reasonable sums * * * annually in accordance with legislation heretofore adopted by the two States, to the end that such municipalities may not suffer undue loss of taxes and assessments." Hence, the county speculates, the borough may be induced by such reward to forego a claim of non-exemption. Thus, it is argued, the statute last cited removes the incentive to the municipality to tax Port Authority property. But, we are informed, the Borough of Moonachie has assessed the property, and there is no charge of a plan to scuttle the assessment. It will be time enough to evaluate the county's standing to maintain a suit when and if the hypothetical situation should come to pass.
At any rate, if despite the lack of legislative authorization the county could be found to have a status to litigate an exemption, we are satisfied the present action is not the appropriate vehicle. As we have already said, we are not at all sure the complaint has that objective. The county did not join the Borough of Moonachie despite the obvious fact that it would be a necessary party to a suit for a declaration upon that matter. N.J.S. 2 A:16-56. Although, if we misconceive the nature of the interest the county here asserts, this difficulty could be met by adding the borough as a party, still we see no reason to by-pass the administrative process devised by the Legislature to deal with the taxation of property. Central Railroad Co. v. Neeld, 26 N.J. 172 (1958), certiorari denied 357 U.S. 928, 78 S. Ct. 1373, 2 L. Ed. 2 d 1371 (1958). The borough has assessed the property, and hence the issue is now in the appropriate forum for findings of fact and initial determination.
Next the county cites R.S. 40:23-5 which empowers its board of freeholders to "appropriate such sums as it shall deem necessary for the purpose of advertising in newspapers, magazines or otherwise, either within or without the
state, the advantages and attractions of the county for residence and business purposes." It seems to be urged the county is thereby constituted the guardian of the public weal with respect to anything and everything which may reflect upon "the advantages and attractions of the county for residence and business purposes." Quite obviously the Legislature made no such grant. Broad powers in that regard are vested in municipalities rather than the county. Authority to appropriate moneys to advertise hardly embraces authority to appropriate money to litigate every situation which may affect the subject. Local ordinances of sundry types bear upon the pursuit of commercial and residential activities. Surely a county may not attack local exercises of the police power merely because they disserve its conception of what the scene should be. To put it in other terms, the county is authorized to advertise the advantages and attractions as they are rather than to determine what those advantages and attractions shall be. It may influence the advantages and attractions solely in the exercise of other powers vested in it by statute. We cannot under the rule of liberal construction, R.S. 40:16-1; N.J. Const. Art. IV, § 7, par. 11, find the Legislature intended to transfer the police power of municipalities to the county simply because it authorized the county to advertise. Indeed municipalities too are authorized to appropriate moneys "for advertising the advantages of the municipality." R.S. 40:48-1 (30).
Actually the complaint does not allege the Port Authority has done anything to impair those advantages and attractions. The sole allegation is that the Port Authority may use its governmental franchises "to engage in private enterprises in direct competition with private capital and privately owned property and circumventing the tax laws of this State, thereby causing great loss and detriment to the County of Bergen and to the municipalities and inhabitants thereof ...