On appeal from the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, State of New Jersey.
Bischoff, Botter and Morton I. Greenberg. The opinion of the court was delivered by Botter, J.A.D.
This is an appeal from the denial of two permits sought by appellants for the purpose of filling and dredging approximately 51 acres of land for the development of 108 shore and lagoon front homes. Of the 51 acres approximately 36 are wetlands and 15 are tideland. A type B wetlands permit was sought to satisfy the requirements of N.J.S.A. 13:9A-4(b) which provides: "No regulated activity shall be conducted on any wetland without a permit." "Regulated activity" is defined by subsection (a) of N.J.S.A. 13:9A-4 to include draining, dredging, excavating or depositing any material or erecting any structures or driving pilings or placing other obstructions on wetlands. A waterfront development permit was sought with respect to the 14.8 acres of submerged riparian lands for which a deed had been granted by the State to appellants' predecessors in 1954 and 1956. As stated in appellants' brief, "the riparian permit was needed for the dredging of shore openings for a lagoon system and the filling of bay bottom on the portion of applicants' property below the mean [high] water line." N.J.S.A. 12:5-3 provides that no development or improvement of any "water-front" upon any navigable water or stream shall be commenced without first obtaining approval of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The waterfront development permit was denied administratively by the Office of Riparian Lands Management of the Division of Marine Services in the DEP. The denial followed a study of the proposed project and an on-site inspection of the area conducted by state and federal representatives. The wetlands permit was denied administratively after a public hearing. The director of the Division found that the application did not meet the standards of N.J.A.C. 7:7A-1.7. A written report accompanied his ruling.
These rulings were then appealed to the Commissioner of DEP, and the appeals were consolidated for a hearing. After taking testimony the hearing officer made findings of fact and
conclusions of law and recommended that the denial of the permits be affirmed. This recommendation was adopted in a written decision of the Commissioner of DEP. The Commissioner found that the proposed development did not meet statutory and regulatory standards. He rejected appellants' contention that the denial of the permits constituted an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation, noting that an alternate plan had been proposed by the Director of the Division of Marine Services which would permit development of part of the property for housing. This appeal followed.
The property in question was part of a 250-acre tract acquired by appellants in the late 1950s. Originally the entire tract was undeveloped virgin wetlands except for a portion that was an old railroad bed and that portion which was flowed by the tide. The property was purchased for $300,000. $23,000 was paid to the State for the two riparian grants. Over the years appellants developed 200 acres by dredging and filling and the construction of approximately 375 homes. Some of the homes (approximately 30) front on Barnegat Bay, some (approximately 16) are non-waterfront, and the balance front on a series of lagoons, approximately 15 in number as shown on Exhibit A-5. With one exception these lagoons tie into the "Main Lagoon" which connects with Barnegat Bay, and the remaining lagoon has a direct connection. The property is zoned by Long Beach Township for single-family dwellings with minimum lot sizes of 10,000 square feet. Deed restrictions limit the sale of lots to 10,000 square feet in the minimum and provide that no building shall be built upon any plot having less than 10,000 square feet in area, with one single-family dwelling per lot.
Without doubt the proposed development of the remaining 51 acres of land conflicts with the legislative purpose of preserving wetlands so that they may serve their natural functions. N.J.S.A. 13:9A-1(a) of the Wetlands Act of 1970, N.J.S.A. 13:9A-1 et seq. , states:
a. The Legislature hereby finds and declares that one of the most vital and productive areas of our natural world is the so-called 'estuarine zone,' that area between the sea and the land; that this area protects the land from the force of the sea, moderates our weather, provides a home for water fowl and for 2/3 of all our fish and shellfish, and assists in absorbing sewage discharge by the rivers of the land; and that in order to promote the public safety, health and welfare, and to protect public and private property, wildlife, marine fisheries and the natural environment, it is necessary to preserve the ecological balance of this area and prevent its further deterioration and destruction by regulating the dredging, filling, removing or otherwise altering or polluting thereof, all to the extent and in the manner provided herein.
The Commissioner properly denied the wetlands permit, and ample credible evidence supports the finding and conclusion that the proposed construction does not meet statutory and regulatory standards. It is immaterial that substantial wetlands exist on other nearby property. Nor is the denial of a permit an unconstitutional taking without compensation. In reaching this conclusion we need not answer the question in the abstract; we need not determine whether the State's interest in preventing a public nuisance, i.e. , pollution or destruction of a part of the State's natural environment, can sustain a prohibition against all construction on police power grounds,*fn1 for in the case at hand the Division suggested a possible alternative plan for development of a portion of the property, approximately 12.5 acres, with 35 single-family houses on separate lots. This substantial potential use of appellants' property precludes appellants' claim of an unconstitutional taking. Penn Central Transp. Co. v. City of New York , 438 U.S. 104, 130-131, 98 S. Ct. 2646, 2663, 57 L. Ed. 2d 631, 652-653 (1978); American Dredging Co. v. State , 169 N.J. Super. 18, 20 (App.Div.1979), aff'g 161 N.J. Super. 504 ...