Conford, Kilkenny and Lewis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, S.j.a.d.
This appeal involves a jury award in a municipal condemnation case. Plaintiff municipality contends that the verdict was based upon incompetent testimony of so-called comparable sales. The verdict is also impugned as influenced by speculative and conjectural opinion testimony adduced by the property owners and as against the weight of the evidence. The trial judge denied a motion for a new trial on the latter ground.
There are 20 vacant lots involved, mostly 40' x 125'. These are scattered throughout a subdivision plan named "Moorestown Heights," approved in 1924, aggregating some 543 such lots, but never actually developed, except that a high school has been recently constructed on the northerly portion of the tract. The platted lots and interior streets are all merely "on paper." To develop these lots for home construction, woods and brush would have to be cleared, and streets and all standard utilities would have to be installed. Only two of the lots front on an existing thoroughfare (Stanwick Avenue).
The plaintiff was acquiring this tract pursuant to the "blighted area" provisions of N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.1 et seq. , acting under a resolution adopted June 24, 1959. Two hundred and thirty-nine of the lots in the tract had been or were later acquired by plaintiff by tax foreclosure and 121 by purchase from lot owners.
Condemnation commissioners had originally awarded $3,575 for the lots under appeal. The jury allowed an aggregate
of $10,960. (It appears, however, that the jury, because of a misunderstanding of the testimony of the owners' valuation expert, explained hereinafter, increased its verdict by at least $1,800, and possibly more.) The single valuation expert for defendants valued the lots at $13,080. At the conclusion of the evidence, however, he conceded mathematical errors in his computations as to three of the parcels, so that his corrected aggregate valuation was $12,053. The higher of two realty experts for the plaintiff valued the lots at $2,900.
The municipality strongly relies upon evidence of sales of some 121 lots in this Moorestown Heights tract to the municipality shortly before the present condemnation at prices roughly similar to the appraisals for lots under appeal at similar locations in the tract given by its expert at the trial (about $500 per lot on the abutting street, Stanwick Avenue, and progressively less for interior lots). These sales resulted from a general offer by the municipality to purchase any such lots at five times their assessed value, based upon the "general understanding" that real estate in Moorestown is assessed at about 20% of true value. These sales were ignored by defendants' expert, McNutt, because regarded by him as made under compulsion in view of the impending condemnation by the purchaser.
The main bone of contention on this appeal is McNutt's reliance, in arriving at his values for the subject properties, on sales of land on the so-called "Club Estates" tract, which lies across Stanwick Avenue to the west opposite the Moorestown Heights tract. This is a development of some 64 very high-grade residential lots, with widths varying from 100 to 175 feet and depths of from 200 to 350 feet, having paved streets and all utilities installed, and being the site of some homes already erected in the $40,000 to $60,000 class. On its westerly side it abuts a golf club. The tract was described by a witness as "the finest residential tract in South Jersey."
Over strenuous objection by the plaintiff, McNutt was allowed to testify to four recent sales of vacant lots in the Club Estates tract at $13,500, $20,000, $22,500 and $16,500,
respectively, to support his valuations of the Moorestown Heights lots under appeal. These sales were at square-foot prices of 66 cents (for a Stanwick Avenue lot) and 33, 37 and 38 cents, respectively, for interior lots. McNutt used those sales in this manner. He established zones of value on both sides of Stanwick Avenue, on the basis of what he described as a "grid" system. His base was the "grid" on the Club Estates tract, which set a valuation of 66 cents per square foot for Stanwick Avenue lots and 40-50 cents and 30-40 cents for interior zones therein. On the basis thereof he then determined relative unit square-foot values for the corresponding zones on the Moorestown Heights side of Stanwick Avenue. Thus, he established 33 cents for a zone comprising lots on Stanwick Avenue as being, in his opinion, worth one-half the rate of the Stanwick Avenue zone in the Club Estates tract, and 12 cents, 10 and 9 cents, respectively, for the progressively interior zones of the Moorestown Heights tract. He fixed those values in percentage relationships to the supposedly corresponding interior zone values he had set for the Club Estates tract. His valuations for the particular lots here under appeal also included additions for "corner influence" (notwithstanding the "streets" were only on paper) and $25 as a "subdivision and tax accumulation fee," the testimonial justification for which was obscure.
Plaintiff's principal objection to this testimony is that the Club Estates sales were not of "comparable properties." The assertion is that the properties sold must be "substantially similar in conditions," Manda v. Orange , 82 N.J.L. 686, 688 (E. & A. 1912); In re Housing Authority of Newark , 126 N.J.L. 60, 65 (E. & A. 1940). To substantiate its contention that the Club Estates lots were not substantially similar to those under appeal plaintiff cites not only the circumstances already mentioned, but also the following. While the Stanwick Avenue frontage of Moorestown Heights to a depth of 700 feet is zoned by the ...