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Township of Princeton v. Bardin

Decided: February 22, 1977.

THE TOWNSHIP OF PRINCETON, IN THE COUNTY OF MERCER, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, APPELLANT,
v.
DAVID J. BARDIN, COMMISSIONER OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, AND THE INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY -- LOUIS BAMBERGER AND MRS. FELIX FULD FOUNDATION, RESPONDENTS. THE TOWNSHIP OF PRINCETON, IN THE COUNTY OF MERCER, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, APPELLANT, V. DAVID J. BARDIN, COMMISSIONER OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, AND RECTOR, WARDENS AND VESTRYMEN OF THE ALL SAINTS CHURCH, RESPONDENTS



Carton, Kole and Larner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Carton, P.J.A.D.

Carton

[147 NJSuper Page 561] On this appeal the Township of Princeton challenges the validity of real estate tax exemptions

granted by respondent David J. Bardin, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, to respondents Institute for Advanced Study and All Saints Church pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.63 to 3.71. The Institute for Advanced Study is a New Jersey nonprofit corporation organized under N.J.S.A. 15:1-1 et seq. Its certificate of incorporation states that the purposes for which it is formed are, among other things, "the promotion of knowledge in all fields, and * * * the training of advanced students and workers for and beyond the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and other professional degrees of equal standing." All Saints Church is a New Jersey religious corporation organized under N.J.S.A. 16:12-1 et seq.

The facts are undisputed. The Institute and the Church filed separate applications for a "Green Acre" property tax exemption with the Commissioner. The Institute's application covered 293 acres of land in Block 12 on the township tax map, while that of the church pertained to an unspecified amount of acreage designated as Lot 592, Block 33 on the township tax map. The Commissioner conducted a joint hearing at which the township appeared. After the hearing the Commissioner, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.67, certified as tax exempt the Institute's 293 acres, with the exception of approximately 10 acres and certain improvements made by the Institute, as well as all of the Church's property. We consolidated the appeals by the Township from these actions.

The township mounts a five-pronged attack upon the constitutionality of the act under the New Jersey Constitution. Its first argument is that the act's classification of certain properties as exempt from property taxes constitutes a special law granting a tax exemption and consequently violates the prohibition against such laws in the New Jersey Constitution. N.J. Const. , Art. VIII, § 1, par. 2.*fn1 Essentially, the township

contends that the act is not a general law because it limits the statutory tax exemption to those landowners who are "nonprofit corporation[s] or organization[s] organized under the laws of this or any State of the United States authorized to carry out the purposes [identified in the act] and which [are] qualified for exemption from Federal Income Tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code * * *." N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.64.

The township's thesis is that limitation of the exemption to landowners who are (1) organized as nonprofit organizations or corporations, (2) authorized to carry out the conservation and recreational purposes specified in the act, see N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.63, and (3) who qualify for exemption from federal income tax under § 501(c)(3), creates an unlawful classification based upon the status of the owner. See Tippett v. McGrath , 70 N.J.L. 110, 113 (Sup. Ct. 1903), aff'd 71 N.J.L. 338 (E. & A. 1904); N.J. Turnpike Auth. v. Washington Tp. , 16 N.J. 38, 44-45 (1954).

This contention has no merit. To be general, a tax exemption statute must draw classifications which rest upon "substantial distinctions" that have a "logical and reasonable basis," and include all property falling within the named classification. General Electric Co. v. Passaic , 28 N.J. 499, 508 (1958), app. dism. 359 U.S. 1006, 79 S. Ct. 1146, 3 L. Ed. 2d 987 (1959); Schwartz v. Essex Cty. Bd. of Taxation , 129 N.J.L. 129, 133-34 (Sup. Ct. 1942), aff'd 130 N.J.L. 177 (E. & A. 1943). But see, Switz v. Kingsley , 37 N.J. 566, 583-85 (1962). A legislative enactment is a special law "if the law does not 'affect equally all of a group who, bearing in mind the purposes of the legislation, are

distinguished by characteristics sufficiently marked and important to make them a class by themselves' * * *. Legislation can be unconstitutionally special even where it affects groups [of subjects] if its classification of them has no rational relationship to its object." Meadowlands Regional Redevelop. Agency v. State , 63 N.J. 35, 48 (1963) (Conford, P.J.A.D. t/a, dissenting in part).

The limitation of the instant classification was intended by the Legislature to insure that the tax exemption is not granted to individuals and corporations who would use the exemption for strictly private purposes and economic gain or who engage in activities not permitted by the federal statute. Such an objective clearly fulfills the "logical and reasonable basis" aspect of the General Electric standard.

There is a "substantial distinction" between organizations and corporations which are required by their state charters, and hence by state law, to operate in a nonprofit manner and which are authorized by their charters to engage in and do engage in the conservation activities contemplated by the act, and those individuals, organizations and corporations who are not so limited and authorized or who do not so use their lands. In classifying the property eligible for the exemption, the legislative purpose was to differentiate between organizations such as those involved in this case and profit-oriented and other organizations which do not qualify under the federal statute. We are satisfied that this legislative classification does not reflect an arbitrary or insubstantial differentiation.

The township's reliance upon Tippett v. McGrath, supra , and N.J. Turnpike Auth. v. Washington Tp., supra , is misplaced. In those cases the sole basis for the arbitrary statutory classification was the status of the property owner, while here the private, nonprofit status of the landowner is one of the bases for the statutory classification. The act also classifies eligible property according to its actual and exclusive use for "natural open space areas for public recreation

and conservation or recreational purposes." ...


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