On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.
Allcorn, Kole and Pressler. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
[176 NJSuper Page 15] The appeal before us in this condemnation case raises an important issue regarding the appropriate date for the valuation
of real property located within an area which had been declared blighted but which was not included in any initial redevelopment plan for the area. More specifically, the question here is whether, where the value of such a parcel has declined between the date of the blight declaration and the date of the subsequent taking, the condemnee is required to prove that the decline in value was directly attributable to the declaration in order to obtain the statutory benefit of a declaration date value. The trial judge answered this question in the affirmative. We disagree.
The condemnees are the owners of three separate parcels of land in the City of Newark which, while not all contiguous, are all located in the same general vicinity and were functionally related in the operation of their wholesale and retail paint sales business. The main business premises were located on one of the parcels (main lot), one parcel was used for parking (parking lot) and the third was used for a garage and warehouse facility (garage lot). The parking lot was located within an area which was declared blighted by the City of Newark in August 1958 and which was included within the boundaries of an urban renewal project, R-6, planned by plaintiff Housing Authority of the City of Newark. The main lot and the garage lot were both located within a different area, which was declared blighted by the City of Newark in November 1961. The Housing Authority's initial urban renewal plan for that blighted area, R-32, was predicated, however, on a project area which encompassed only about 25% of the entire area declared blighted. As explained by the Housing Authority's Chief of Planning, the 1961 blight declaration
During the entire protracted planning phase of the project the condemnees continued the operation of their business, using all three lots as theretofore. In March 1969 the main building was completely destroyed by fire, resulting in the relocation of the entire business. The main building was uninsured at that time and not rebuilt, and the garage building, because it was frequently vandalized after the business relocation caused its vacancy, was ultimately demolished by the condemnees.
In 1972 the Housing Authority amended the project plan to include the now vacant main lot, and in April 1978 the Housing Authority filed its complaint in condemnation seeking the appointment of commissioners of condemnation to fix the value of all three lots. (The complaint included a fourth lot not here in issue, the parties having agreed on its value). Subsequent to the filing of the complaint, this proceeding was commenced in order to fix the valuation date to be applied by the commissioners, the condemnees urging that the proper date for all three lots was the blight declaration date and the Housing Authority urging that the proper date was the date of the filing of the complaint. The trial judge concluded that the parking lot and the garage lot were entitled to the declaration of blight date but that the main lot was to be valued as of the complaint date. The condemnees appeal and the Housing Authority does not cross-appeal.
In our view, the issue here posed is essentially one of statutory construction. The first of the statutes here relevant is N.J.S.A. 20:3-30, the general valuation provision of the Eminent Domain Act, which provides that
Just compensation shall be determined as of the date of the earliest of the following events: (a) the date possession of the property being condemned is taken by the condemnor in whole or in part; (b) the date of the commencement of the action; (c) the date on which action is taken by the condemnor which substantially affects the use and enjoyment of the property by the condemnee.
This section of the act must, however, be read together with N.J.S.A. 20:3-38, which provides in full that
The value of any land or other property being acquired in connection with development or redevelopment of a blighted area shall be no less than the value as of the date of the declaration of blight by the governing body upon a report by a planning board.
This mandate of N.J.S.A. 20:3-38 derives from the 1967 amendment of its repealed predecessor statute, N.J.S.A. 20:1-9 (see L. 1967, c. 218) and reiterates the same requirement imposed by the 1967 amendment of the Blighted Area Act, N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.1 et seq., N.J.S.A. 40:55-21.10 having been thereby amended to provide that in any condemnation action instituted for the purpose of acquiring land for a redevelopment project in a blighted area, "the value of any property sought to ...