The parties cross-move on undisputed facts for a summary declaration of their rights and obligations under the New Jersey Highway Access Management Act, N.J.S.A. 27:7-89 to -98, which provides a statutory and regulatory framework for managing access to state highways. The State of New Jersey by the Commissioner of Transportation (the Commissioner) has determined to relocate Route 46 in Clifton to the south of its now-abutting line with the property owned by plaintiff Ralph Magliochetti (Magliochetti). In addition, as part of the highway redesign, the Commissioner will create a service road parallel to the relocated Route 46 that will be constructed partially on the existing roadbed for the westbound lanes of Route 46 and partially on a triangular piece from the southerly line of Magliochetti's property. Finally, the Commissioner will provide access to Magliochetti's restaurant, "The Lily Pond," via a street perpendicular to the service road and will revoke his current access permit.
Magliochetti contends that the reasonableness of the proposed alternative access is an issue to be determined by a jury as an element of the damages in the eminent domain action to be instituted by the Commissioner with respect to the partial taking of his property. The Commissioner contends that the issue of reasonable access must be decided in the first instance by an administrative law Judge who has expertise in such access issues and that the administrative law decision will then be binding in the eminent domain action. For the reasons stated hereafter, exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required.
Preliminarily, the court must briefly address the contention of the Commissioner that Magliochetti's complaint should be dismissed because this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction of this dispute. The Commissioner argues that the Department of Transportation has exclusive jurisdiction to determine the existence of reasonable alternative access and to revoke access permits under N.J.S.A. 27:7-93. The Commissioner misconstrues the nature of Magliochetti's complaint, which is an action for a declaratory
judgment. Jurisdiction of such an action is found in the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 to -62. That Act provides that "[a] person . . . whose rights . . . are affected by a statute . . . may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the . . . statute . . . and obtain a declaration of rights . . . thereunder." N.J.S.A. 2A:16-53. Where the question is purely one of interpretation of a statute and its application to undisputed facts, subject matter jurisdiction exists in the Law Division of the Superior Court. Registrar & Transfer Co. v. Director, Div. of Tax., 166 N.J. Super. 75, 78 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 81 N.J. 63 (1979). This is precisely the relief sought and the Commissioner's jurisdictional argument is thus without merit.
Magliochetti's property currently fronts on the northerly line of Route 46 three blocks west of its intersection with Crooks Avenue and Route 20. The nearest intersecting street is East Fourth Street which bounds the property on the east. The westerly line abuts an entrance ramp to the Garden State Parkway. There are two curb cuts from Route 46 West directly into the parking lot for Magliochetti's restaurant, permitting westbound traffic direct access to The Lily Pond parking lot. Traffic eastbound on Route 46 currently accesses the restaurant by proceeding onto Route 20 North and making a U-turn around McDonald's Restaurant at a point approximately 2000 feet beyond plaintiff's property. Patrons then head south on Route 20 to merge into Route 46 westbound. Traffic southbound on Route 20 (which terminates at Route 46) merges into Route 46 West at a point east of Magliochetti's property and thus has direct access to the restaurant.
Patrons returning to locations to the east and north of Magliochetti's restaurant head west on Route 46 a distance of about 1900 feet to the Lexington Avenue interchange. There traffic can make a U-turn, head east on Route 46 and, after passing The Lily Pond, access Route 20 North and Crooks Avenue or remain on Route 46 East. Patrons returning to locations west of the subject property have direct access onto Route 46 westbound.
To summarize, customers of Magliochetti's restaurant who intend to return to the location from which they travelled in reaching his property have to make one approximately 4000-foot loop on one leg of their round trip but have direct access to and from his property on the other leg.
On July 29, 1992, the State informed Magliochetti of its intent to take a portion of his property in connection with revisions to Route 46 and the entrance ramp to the Garden State Parkway in the vicinity of his restaurant. The entire project includes the reconstruction of the bridge over the Passaic River that connects Elmwood Park with Clifton and Paterson, the realignment of Route 46 closer to the Passaic River on the Clifton side, and the construction of a new overpass at the intersection of Crooks Avenue and Routes 46 and 20.
On January 4, 1993, the Commissioner informed Magliochetti that the project would require revocation of his direct access to Route 46 westbound. He was informed that the Commissioner had determined that reasonable alternative access would be available via his existing driveways to East Fourth Street and that he had a right to a hearing regarding the sufficiency of the proposed alternative access. Magliochetti was advised that if he chose to appeal the proposed action, a hearing would be scheduled before an administrative law Judge and that if he did not respond within 30 days, his right to a hearing would be deemed waived. On January 21, 1992, Magliochetti notified the Commissioner that he wished to appeal the proposed action.
The proposed construction will eliminate all Route 46 frontage from Magliochetti's property and will eliminate direct Route 46 access to or from his property. The Commissioner proposes to condemn a triangular portion of Magliochetti's property from sideline to sideline along the existing westbound lanes of Route 46. The property taken will be used in conjunction with the existing roadbed to create a service road from which local commercial establishments can be accessed. No curb cuts from the service road will be allowed in front of his property. Magliochetti contends
that the realignment of Route 46 and the creation of the service road deprive his customers of reasonable access to the state's highways.
After construction, eastbound traffic on Route 46 will have to cross the Passaic River, exit on the jughandle for River Road, go north under Route 46 and take the jughandle for Route 46 West. Magliochetti's patrons will then cross the Passaic River again, take the exit for Crooks Avenue, make a left on the service road and proceed three blocks to the subject property. The Commissioner estimates that the total distance traversed on this more complicated loop will be about one mile. To return to the direction from whence they came, these patrons will have to retrace their path along the service road to Crooks Avenue and take the entrance ramp onto Route 46 East and repeat the above-described double crossing of the Passaic River, ultimately passing the subject property on the realigned highway after another mile-long, complicated loop. Thus, patrons travelling from the west of Magliochetti's establishment will, on a round trip, travel 2.65 times the distance currently required to patronize Magliochetti's restaurant.
Traffic headed west on Route 46 will have to exit the highway to the left immediately after crossing the Passaic River and take Crooks Avenue to the service road. So long as the patron knows to take this Crooks Avenue exit, access to the subject property from the east does not appear to be substantially different than it is presently, and return access to Route 46 eastbound is more direct, the customers merely retracing the path by which they arrived. However, prospective customers who remain on the realigned Route 46 and become interested in patronizing The Lily Pond as they pass the restaurant will have to proceed west on the 3800-foot loop around Lexington Avenue, pass the subject property as they head east, and then make the mile-long, complicated loop across the Passaic River and back to gain access to the service road and, ultimately, Magliochetti's property via East
Fourth Street. If they miss East Fourth Street, they may have to take a trip on ...