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County of Middlesex v. Clearwater Village Inc.

Decided: October 19, 1978.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Lora and Larner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Larner, J.A.D.


This is a condemnation action instituted by the County of Middlesex which was heard by the court without a jury. It involves the taking of a parcel of undeveloped land consisting of 21.266 acres which is a part of a total tract of 85 acres purchased by Clearwater Village, Inc. (Clearwater) from the Borough of Spotswood in September 1973. After a plenary trial the court entered judgment for $250,000 based upon a finding that the portion of the land taken by the County had a value of $150,000 and that the taking resulted in severance damage to the remainder of the acreage to the extent of $100,000. Both the condemnor and condemnee felt aggrieved by this result and moved for a new trial. Upon denial of these motions both parties took an appeal to this court.

The county's appeal attacks the valuation of the condemned portion of the land and asserts that the award for severance damages is unwarranted on the record herein. Clearwater in turn cross-appeals, contending that the awards for the lands taken by the county and for the severance damage to the remainder were inadequate under the record evidence. It further asserts error in the rate and effective date of interest granted by the trial court.


In the valuation of the 21.266 acres taken by the county the trial judge first arrived at a fair market value of the entire 85-acre tract by a synthesis of the testimony of the experts on both sides of the controversy. He properly rejected the income analysis proposed by Schachter, Clearwater's appraiser, because it was inappropriate and highly

speculative in the context of vacant land. However, both Schachter and the County's appraiser, Lazarus, arrived at the approximate sum of $750,000 as the fair valuation of the entire tract of land as of the time of taking by utilizing an adjusted cost approach. We have no hesitancy in concluding that the judge's factual finding of $750,000 as the value of the entire parcel prior to the taking is fair and reasonable and is based upon substantial credible evidence in the record.

Having determined this pretaking value, the trial judge concluded that the 21-acre parcel taken by the county was an integral part of the total project planned by Clearwater pursuant to the terms of its commitment to the borough, as seller, to develop the tract as a senior citizen mobile home community. Accordingly, the judge found that the elimination of the condemned 21 acres would result in the loss of approximately 20% of the mobile home units planned by the owner. Thus, instead of analyzing the value of 21 acres either on the basis of the relationship of the area taken to the area of the entire tract or on the basis of its independent value because of its particular physical and topographical characteristics, the judge considered its value in the context of the impact upon the total economic unit of which it was a part. As a consequence, he concluded that the lands taken by the county had a value, bottomed upon their highest and mandated use, amounting to 20% of the total valuation of $750,000 or $150,000.

We are satisfied that the approach taken by the trial judge as the factfinder is a reasonable one in this case in view of the special purpose for which the property must be developed under the conditions of the sale from the Borough of Spotswood to Clearwater. The evaluation based on the commercial value of the land in the context of a development for a mobile home community is one appropriately left to the fact finder under the special circumstances herein where that is not only the highest and best use but is the only possible use to which the land can be put. See State v. Gorga , 26 N.J. 113 (1958).

In arriving at the $150,000 valuation the judge deviated from the traditional articulation of the method of determining land values for condemnation purposes -- namely, through a finding of the purchase price which would be agreed upon between a hypothetical willing buyer and seller. See State v. Gorga, supra; State v. Mehlman , 118 N.J. Super. 587 (App. Div. 1972); State v. Birch , 115 N.J. Super. 457 (App. Div. 1971); State v. Speare , 86 N.J. Super. 565 (App. Div. 1965). Nevertheless, this traditional definition is not one which is mandated in every condemnation matter. Where the property involved has a single special use by virtue of controlling ordinances or covenants, it is within the power and discretion of the factfinder to utilize other approaches which may be more realistically applicable to the unusual circumstances.

So long as the determination is rational, is supported by the evidence, and constitutes the "just compensation" mandated by the New Jersey Constitution (Art. I, para. 20), the means of arriving at such determination may be varied and flexible, dependent upon the character and use of the property involved. As observed by the Supreme Court in Jersey City Redevelopment Agency v. Kugler , 58 N.J. 374 (1971)

There is no precise and inflexible rule for the assessment of just compensation. The Constitution does not contain any fixed standard of fairness by which it must be measured. Courts have been careful not to reduce the concept to a formula. The effort has been to find working rules and practical standards that will accomplish substantial justice such as, but not limited to, market value. United States v. Cors, supra , 337 ...

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