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Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders v. Union County Park Commission

Decided: January 20, 1964.

UNION COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, A BODY POLITIC OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
THE UNION COUNTY PARK COMMISSION, A BODY POLITIC OF THE COUNTY OF UNION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.

Jacobs

The plaintiff Board of Freeholders instituted a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination of its right to certain capital funds in the possession of the defendant Park Commission. Summary judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff. See 77 N.J. Super. 425 (Law Div. 1962). The defendant appealed to the Appellate Division and we certified before argument there.

Through various transactions, the Park Commission acquired a sizable tract of land in Roselle Park which it used for park purposes. The original cost was $35,719, paid for from funds furnished by the Board of Freeholders in accordance with R.S. 40:37-129. See Union County Park Com. v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, 3 N.J. 73 (1949). Apparently the Board of Education of Roselle Park needed the land

for the construction of a high school and it negotiated with the Park Commission for an exchange or a purchase. The Park Commission represents that an exchange was impossible since no other suitable land was available in Roselle Park and that although it was reluctant to do so it agreed, because of Roselle Park's great educational need, to sell the land for $150,000 intending "that the proceeds of the sale be used as a vehicle of exchange to acquire other park land." A resolution authorizing the sale and finding it to be in the public interest was duly adopted by the Park Commission in January 1962 and a copy of its resolution was sent to the Board of Freeholders in compliance with N.J.S.A. 40:37-146.1. The sale was consummated in February 1962, the purchase price of $150,000 was received by the Park Commission and, as the Law Division found, it "proposes to apply these funds for the purchase of additional park lands." 77 N.J. Super., at p. 430.

After the Park Commission had received the proceeds of the sale, the Board of Freeholders demanded that they be forwarded to it but the demand was refused. The Board of Freeholders then filed a complaint which was met by an answer denying the plaintiff's standing to maintain the action and asserting that the Park Commission has the right to retain the proceeds for the purpose of acquiring additional park land in replacement of that which had been sold. On the standing issue the Law Division properly found against the defendant. See 77 N.J. Super., at pp. 431-433. There was an actual controversy between the parties which involved differing viewpoints as to the meaning of applicable statutory provisions. The situation clearly came within the orbit of the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (N.J.S. 2A:16-50 et seq.) which was designed to "settle and afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status and other legal relations." N.J.S. 2A:16-51. Any judicial hostility to its use is a thing of the past for the act is now well-recognized as remedial in nature and entitled to liberal construction and administration. See National-Ben Franklin

Fire Ins. Co. v. Camden Trust Co., 21 N.J. 16, 20-23 (1956). The defendant contends in effect that the Board of Freeholders has no interest in the funds possessed by it and therefore has no standing to maintain the action. But the question of whether it has an interest is the meritorious issue which the Board is entitled to have judicially determined; the declaratory judgment proceeding it chose for such determination was an appropriate one. Cf. New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Parsons, 3 N.J. 235, 239-241 (1949); Abbott v. Beth Israel Cemetery Ass'n of Woodbridge, 13 N.J. 528, 540-542 (1953).

In dealing with the merits of the controversy, the lower court and the parties agreed that, unlike other situations which are governed by explicit statutory directions (see, e.g., N.J.S.A. 40:37-95.38), there is no such guide with respect to the handling of proceeds received by a park commission from a sale under N.J.S.A. 40:37-146.1. The matter therefore becomes one of ascertaining and effectuating the legislative purpose as the court may best gather it from such pertinent statutory materials as are available. In aid of the court's search, rules of statutory construction may be referred to although they are always to be subordinated to the ultimate goal of carrying out the wishes of the Legislature. See State v. Provenzano, 34 N.J. 318, 322 (1961); cf. Fidelity Union Trust Co. v. Robert, 36 N.J. 561, 567-568 (1962). Here the lower court's construction of the pertinent statutory materials led it to the conclusion that the Board of Freeholders is entitled to the $150,000 now in the possession of the Park Commission; in reaching its conclusion it took a construction approach which we disapprove.

The Law Division held that R.S. 40:20-1 should be construed liberally in favor of the Board of Freeholders while the statutory grant of power to the Park Commission should be construed strictly. See 77 N.J. Super. 434-435. R.S. 40:20-1 provides that the property, finances and affairs of any county shall be managed, controlled and governed by the county board of freeholders "except where by law any such

powers or duties are imposed upon or vested in another board, committee or department of the county." Here the property and management of the county park system were clearly vested by law (R.S. 40:37-96 et seq.) in the Union County Park Commission, a body politic described judicially as autonomous in nature. See Union County Park Com'n v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, supra, 3 N.J., at p. 80; Hill v. Borough of Collingswood, 9 N.J. 369, 375 (1952); see also Wall v. Hudson County Park Com., 80 N.J. Super. 372 (App. Div. 1963), certif. denied 41 N.J. 198 (1963), where the court, after referring to the broad statutory powers vested by the Legislature in county park commissions, noted that while their funds are derived from the freeholders, they are autonomous bodies with complete power "to govern and control the establishment, operation, maintenance and use of public parks" within their jurisdiction. 80 N.J. Super., at p. 377.

The acts relating to park commissions should not be construed strictly but should be construed liberally to the end that the commissions may fairly and fully achieve their assigned tasks. See Cammarata v. Essex County Park Comm'n, 46 N.J. Super. 262, 270 (App. Div. 1957), aff'd 26 N.J. 404, 411 (1958); cf. Bechler v. Parsekian, 36 N.J. 242, 249-250 (1961); Allendale Field & Stream Ass'n v. Legal Games of Chance Control Comm'n, 41 N.J. 209 (1963). In Cammarata, question was raised as to whether a county park commission had power to establish a probationary system for its ...


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