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Township of Washington v. Central Bergen Community Mental Health Center Inc.

Decided: January 4, 1978.


Follender, J.d.c., temporarily assigned.


[156 NJSuper Page 394] In this declaratory judgment action brought pursuant to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50, plaintiff Township of Washington (township) seeks an adjudication to oust and foreclose defendant Central Bergen Community Mental Health Center, Inc. (Central) from its use and occupancy of certain residential premises commonly known as 866 Crest Place, as tenant under a written lease agreement in which defendant Barbara Ruhren (Ruhren) is landlord, on the ground that the de facto use and occupation of the premises in a "B" residential zone by five former mental patients at Greystone Park State Hospital (Greystone) under auspices of Central, is prohibited by the township zoning ordinance from which a variance has neither been sought nor obtained.

Underlying and inextricably woven into the fabric of this controversy are the unexpressed but patently recognizable fears of local residents that as a result of Central's use they will suffer immediate and irreparable loss of property values, and that the occupants pose a threat to the community and themselves, thereby placing an unfair and undue burden on the township, which requires this court to order termination of the use.

By way of answer and counterclaim Central denies that its use and occupancy of the premises are prohibited or at variance with the zoning ordinance, and asserts in any event: that (1) it is entitled to governmental immunity from the application of the zoning ordinance bottomed on an existing contractual relationship between Central and the Department of Institutions and Agencies (now the Department of Human Services), an arm of the government of the State of New Jersey (State) forged pursuant to the legislative scheme set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1 et seq., and (2) the zoning ordinance is unconstitutional because it fatally conflicts with provisions contained in N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1.

Drawn by the public interest questions herein implicated, the State intervened as a party defendant. Relying upon the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the State urges that Central as its agent is performing an authorized function in its behalf and hence is not subject to the local zoning ordinances.

A recounting of the pertinent facts, which fortuitously are substantially undisputed, and of Central's operations and programs, is essential to a thorough understanding of the issues.

Washington Township is a suburban community located in the north-central portion of Bergen County known as the Pascack Valley, having a land area of approximately 3 1/2 square miles. Development of the available land area in the municipality exceeds 95% and is composed almost exclusively

of one-family residential dwellings of recent vintage, ranging in value from $35,000 to amounts exceeding $100,000. Industrial uses are prohibited in the township and there are no multi-family dwellings other than a few two-family homes. Commercial development is slight and includes a small number of retail service businesses of various types and one medium-sized shopping center.

Central, a nonprofit corporation, was incorporated under the provisions of N.J.S.A. 15:1-1 et seq. , the Corporations and Associations Not For Profit Act, on July 30, 1970, by the filing of a certificate of incorporation pursuant to N.J.S.A. 15:1-15, for the purpose of providing mental health care and service by contract pursuant to a plan designed by the Legislature and embodied in N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1 et seq. Central commenced operations on August 1, 1971 as an independent community mental health center to serve the then 65,000 (now 160,000) people residing or working in the ten municipalities located in central Bergen County which comprise an area known as Catchment Area No. 46.*fn1 The number of persons employed by Central total between 75 and 100. Its principal offices for business are located at 18 and 26 Park Place, Paramus, New Jersey, with the latter site serving primarily as the headquarters for the program known as Project Haven. A satellite office is maintained in Saddle Brook, with affiliate facilities at Fair Lawn Mental Health Center and the Pascack Mental Health Center, and an inpatient component at Bergen Pines County Hospital (Bergen Pines).

Over the years Central has devised, operated and expanded several programs for patients and former patients who would otherwise be confined at either Bergen Pines or Greystone. Among the services provided are hospital liaison programs, including "outreach" and pre-discharge planning; partial hospitalization; day treatment, vocational training and rehabilitation; offsite services provided to clients living in nursing homes; transportation to and from facilities, and assistance in arranging for necessary medical and dental care. Almost all of these services are offered to ex-patients of state or county institutions while housed in "transitional residences" established by Central under the combined program known as Project Haven. A "transitional residence" is one in which the individuals who may have been confined in an institutional environment for several years or longer are given the opportunity to learn or relearn noninstitutional interpersonal and community relationships. It is the core of Project Haven.

The ultimate goal of Project Haven manifest in its two-part program -- residential living conjoined with rehabilitative treatment and training -- is complete release into free society. Substantial factors controlling such release are financial independence, suitable housing facilities and the availability of a means of support within the community.

Project Haven-type residential facilities were first initiated by Central in 1972 in cooperation with the Bergen County Mental Health Board Committee on Continuity of Care. Greystone had become so overcrowded that a number of Bergen County residents were necessarily placed in foster homes in Morris County. Convinced of the urgency of the situation, the Bergen County Mental Health Board awarded a $10,000 grant to Central to open a transitional residence to serve selected patients who were classified as borderline between in-an-out patient status. During 1972 and 1973 Central opened two additional apartment-type residences, one for males and one for females.

Commencing in 1975 states that had devised a master mental health plan which included a program for "transitional" services could receive federal funding for such services, pursuant to the federal Health Review Sharing Act of 1975, Title III, Public Law 94-63, and the federal regulations pertaining thereto. See, specifically, 42 U.S.C.A. ยง 2684.

The statutory scheme promulgated by the Legislature, effective June 12, 1967, contained in N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1 et seq. , effectively qualified this State for such funding and provided in pertinent part the following:

N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1

It is declared to be the public policy of this State to encourage the development of preventive treatment and after-care services for mental health problems through additional community mental health programs and the improvement and expansion of existing community mental health services in designated service areas for the entire State which will provide these elements of adequate services:

(b) out-patient services;

(c) partial hospitalization services such as day care, night care, weekend care;

(g) rehabilitative services including vocational and education programs;

(h) pre-care and after-care services in the community including foster home placement, home visiting and halfway houses;

(i) training;

N.J.S.A. 30:9A-5

Subject to the provisions of this chapter, and the regulations of the department, every county mental health board shall have the power and duty to:

(a) Develop a plan of community mental health services for the county;

N.J.S.A. 30:9A-6

(b) All projects shall include an explanation of the operation proposed and a budget showing all sources of revenue, including anticipated State financial aid, and a list of personnel requirements.

N.J.S.A. 30:9A-8

The commissioner, with due regard for the recommendations made by the community mental health board, shall approve for State financial participation community mental health projects . . . which implement . . . a community mental health program through . . . rehabilitative and after-care services for mental health problems of children and adults in the community.

N.J.S.A. 30:9A-11

It is declared to be the policy of this State to encourage sponsoring agencies as described herein to establish community mental health centers by making provision for payment of a part of the cost of capital expenditures required in connection therewith, exclusive of the cost of site acquisition, and upon approval by the commissioner of a proper application by a sponsoring agency for this purpose a financial grant-in-aid may be made not to exceed 60% of that portion of the cost of said capital expenditures to be borne by said agency. [Emphasis supplied]

Said plan also complied with the Community Mental Health Center Act of 1973 (Title II of Public Law 89-105, 1966, and Public Law 91-211, 1970).

To further the strong public policy declarations and evident legislative intent contained in N.J.S.A. 30:9A-1 et seq. , Central, at the request of the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Bergen County, submitted a program plan containing proposals for after-care services. Predicated upon the proposed submission, Central on March 1, 1975 executed a contract with the Office of Community Mental Health and Services of the Department of Institutions and Agencies (now the Office of Community Services of the Department of Human Services) to provide among other things, placement and work-related services, adult day care and counseling for 100 persons from Greystone, Bergen Pines and the community. The contract covered the period from March 1, 1975 to June 30, 1976. Additionally, it provided that a maximum of ten new transitional residences be established to house at least 50 catchment ...

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