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Lyons v. City of Camden

Decided: February 6, 1967.


For remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J. Haneman, J., concurs in result. Haneman, J. (concurring).


[48 NJ Page 528] Plaintiffs, 85 resident property owners of the City of Camden, brought this action in lieu of prerogative writ to review a declaration by the Camden City Planning Board and the governing body of the City of Camden that the area of the city in which they live is a blighted area within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 55:14A-31 et seq. The declaration of blight is not limited to the particular portion of the city where plaintiffs reside. It encompasses a much larger surrounding and contiguous area. Plaintiffs' attack is directed only against so much of the determination of blight as relates to the area in which their properties are located. This section, they assert, is not blighted, and is easily severable from the remainder of the area. Consequently they charge that the two public bodies acted arbitrarily and capriciously in not excluding it from the larger area. The trial court concluded that the determinations of the planning board and the city were supported in their entirety by substantial evidence, and therefore entered judgment in defendants' favor. Plaintiffs sought a review in the Appellate Division, but we certified

the appeal on our own motion before it was argued there. R.R. 1:10-1(a).

The section of the City of Camden involved is known as the Northshore area. It consists of 272.45 acres and is said to have "sound" boundaries in accordance with recognized city planning criteria. It is bounded on the west by the New Jersey channel of the Delaware River; on the north by the city line and the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad; on the east by a proposed 155-foot-wide right of way (a reconstruction of Harrison Avenue, running from State Street to 36th Street); and on the south by a large housing complex on the opposite side of East State Street. Most of the area, 210.67 acres or 77.3%, consists of undeveloped land; 23.66 acres are streets and rights of way; many of the streets are paper streets. Seventy-four per cent (74%) of the vacant land is owned by the City of Camden; 47 acres of this are under water between the shore line and the United States Pierhead and Bulkhead line.

Developed land is generally concentrated in two locations. One is between 27th and 30th Streets; the other extends from Beidman Avenue to 36th Street. Residential land occupies 11.61 acres; commercial, 11.07 acres; industrial, 8.28 acres; and public lands, 7.16 acres. There are 198 structures in this area, of which 168 are dwellings; 89 of the dwellings were said to be substandard by the planning board's experts. Plaintiffs deny that they are substandard.

On November 12, 1965 the city by resolution pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.2 authorized the planning board to investigate the section of the city described above to determine whether it is a blighted area within the contemplation of N.J.S.A. 55:14A-32. (The definition of "blighted area" is the same in N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.1.) The board conducted the investigation and thereafter, on notice to interested parties, held a public hearing. At the hearing, which was recorded stenographically, a number of witnesses, expert planners and otherwise, testified at the instance of the board; maps and photographs were produced also. The witnesses

described the area and its physical condition and gave their reasons why it should be declared blighted. A report, prepared after study of the area by a firm of planning and urban renewal consultants, was introduced. It contained elaborate specifications in support of their conclusion that the area is blighted. Among other things it reported that, of 166 residential dwellings located there, 89 were substandard and 33 others had significant deficiencies.

During this presentation of the results of the board's investigation of the condition of the area, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the present action sought to cross-examine various witnesses with respect to the assertion that the section in which plaintiffs' homes are located is blighted, and also as to whether it would not be proper and feasible to exclude that section from the area the witnesses felt should be declared blighted. Cross-examination was not allowed because the board considered the proceedings a legislative and not a trial type hearing. It is true such hearings are of the legislative type and that cross-examination is not a matter of right. Wilson v. City of Long Branch, 27 N.J. 360, 385-389 (1958), certiorari denied 358 U.S. 873, 79 S. Ct. 113, 3 L. Ed. 2 d 104 (1958); Stahl v. Paterson Bd. of Finance, 62 N.J. Super. 562, 584 (Law Div. 1960), aff'd, 69 N.J. Super. 242 (App. Div. 1961); Sorbino v. City of New Brunswick, 43 N.J. Super. 554 (Law Div. 1957); and, cf. Rindge Co. v. Los Angeles County, 262 U.S. 700, 709, 43 S. Ct. 689, 67 L. Ed. 1186, 1193 (1923). Of course, cross-examination within reasonable limits is permissible in the discretion of the board. If allowed in some situations and kept in hand, perhaps subsequent court action may be avoided. But, we repeat, the matter rests in the wisdom and judgment of the board and the judicial branch of the government will not intrude.

After the testimony and exhibits covering its investigation had been put in the record, the board announced that any interested party who cared to be heard either orally or in writing might present himself. The attorney for these plaintiffs

then made a long statement in their behalf in opposition to a declaration of blight so far as it might include the portion of the Northshore area in which they lived. Upon inquiry as to whether plaintiffs would be satisfied to have the attorney speak for them rather than have each one state his opposition and the reasons therefor, it was agreed that the attorney's statement would suffice. Then plaintiffs' names and addresses were placed in the record, and photographs of some of their homes were submitted. All other interested persons who chose to speak were permitted to do so, and a number of written statements of objectors were received.

Two weeks later the board adopted a resolution declaring the entire Northshore area blighted. Plaintiffs' properties were included. The report of its investigation, the record of the hearing and the resolution were submitted to the city council as required by N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.7. About seven weeks later the council, after reviewing the matter, approved the board's ...

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