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Township of Wayne v. Cassatly

Decided: November 24, 1975.

TOWNSHIP OF WAYNE IN THE COUNTY OF PASSAIC, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
EDWARD CASSATLY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Matthews, Lora and Morgan.

Per Curiam

On July 20, 1970 plaintiff Wayne Township, in connection with its urban renewal program, instituted the present condemnation proceeding to acquire 21.3 acres of a larger tract of land owned by defendant and located in Wayne Township near the Willowbrook shopping complex. The condemnation commissioners awarded defendant $1,250,000 for the taking, which included damages to the remaining tract, a parcel slightly in excess of 18 acres. Both parties appealed this award to the Superior Court, and between the date of the commissioners' award and the trial in the Superior Court the new Eminent Domain Act became effective. N.J.S.A. 20:3-1 et seq. In accordance therewith, and on application of defendant, the trial judge ordered plaintiff to acquire the remaining 18-acre parcel, an uneconomic remnant. N.J.S.A. 20:3-37. The matter thereafter proceeded as if this order had been complied with.

Several months before trial plaintiff moved for the appointment of an independent appraiser because of the wide disparity (over a million dollars) between the valuations of plaintiff's and defendant's experts. The granting of plaintiff's application and the testimony of the court-appointed appraiser provides one of the grounds of the present appeal.

At the trial plaintiff's expert valued the property taken as of July 20, 1970 at $2,036,000; defendant's two experts valued it at $3,328,000 and $3,110,000; the court's expert, called by plaintiff, valued it at $2,155,000. The jury returned a verdict of $2,270,000 and the judge awarded prejudgment

interest at 7% on the excess over the amount previously deposited by plaintiff, calculated from the date the action was commenced.

Defendant's contention on appeal that the trial judge mistakenly exercised its discretion in acceding to plaintiff's request for the appointment of an independent expert, is without merit. The large disparity in the valuations of the experts, suggesting undue partisanship, provided ample basis, for the action taken. State v. Lanza , 74 N.J. Super. 362, 374 (App. Div. 1962), aff'd 39 N.J. 595 (1963), app. dism. 375 U.S. 451, 84 S. Ct. 525, 11 L. Ed. 2d 477 (1964), reh. den. 376 U.S. 935, 84 S. Ct. 697, 11 L. Ed. 2d 655 (1964); Wayne Tp. v. Kosoff , 136 N.J. Super. 53 (App. Div. 1975); Jersey City Redev. v. Weisenfeld , 124 N.J. Super. 291, 294-295 (App. Div. 1973), certif. den. 63 N.J. 563 (1973). All parties were apprised of the identity of the court-appointed expert in advance of his testimony, and after his direct testimony on behalf of plaintiff (by whom the independent expert was called) defendant was afforded full opportunity of cross-examining him. State v. Lanza, supra , 74 N.J. Super. at 374. Nor do we perceive error by the trial judge in advising the jury that the independent expert was appointed by the court, a procedure sanctioned by court rule in analogous circumstances. R. 4:20-10. Where a judge sits as fact-finder, he has knowledge that the expert appointed by him testifies free from the influence of interest in favor of either side; no reason appears why a jury sitting as fact-finder should be less well-informed, particularly where, as here, they are instructed to make their own independent evaluations of the weight to be accorded the testimony of the court appointed expert. See Wayne Tp. v. Kosoff, supra.

Defendant next contends, without merit, that the trial judge erroneously excluded several sales referred to as comparable by his expert witnesses while admitting evidence of a sale (at plaintiff's behest) concerning land defendant contends could not properly be deemed comparable to the

land being condemned. One of the excluded sales was offered by an expert who had previously testified to four others of substantial comparability. This excluded comparable sale offering really consisted of two sales separated by about nine months. One sale involved somewhat over ten acres, and the other in excess of eight acres. (The subject property consists of almost 40 acres.) The offered sale concerned property in a different municipality, with different zoning, and was located approximately 3 1/2 to 4 miles east of the subject property. The expert freely admitted that of the five comparable sales referred to in his testimony, he placed the least reliance on the one which was subsequently excluded. We conclude that exclusion of this sale fell well within the proper scope of the trial judge's discretion. Ocean Cty. v. Landolfo , 132 N.J. Super. 523, 528 (App. Div. 1975); Moorestown Tp. v. Slack , 85 N.J. Super. 109, 114 (App. Div. 1964), certif. den. 43 N.J. 452 (1964).

The other excluded sales were of parcels located in other municipalities and counties, at substantial distance from the subject property, and had as their only similarity the fact that they were located near major shopping centers. The excluded sales concerned the following parcels of land: (1) an eight-acre tract in Woodbridge, 22 miles from the subject property; (2) property in Menlo Park, also about 22 miles from the subject property, with its only similarity to the subject property being its proximity to a major shopping center; (3) a 2 1/2-acre tract in Paramus located about 10-12 miles from the subject property; (4) a ten-acre parcel in East Paterson about three miles from the subject property. In our view, the proffered sales concerned property so dissimilar in location and size that few rationally probative valuation inferences could be drawn from them by the jury, and their exclusion did not, particularly where sales of other comparable property were available and admitted, constitute a mistaken exercise of the trial court's discretion. Moorestown Tp. v. Slack, supra.

Admitting the Totowa-Wayne Airport to Pet Needs, Inc. sale, offered by plaintiff, fell within the proper bounds of the trial judge's discretion. Although there were dissimilarities, the property was similar in size, zoning, and physical land features to the subject property, and this, together with the expert's statement that it influenced him greatly in arriving at his valuation, properly caused the trial judge to exercise his ...


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