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Township of Berkeley Heights v. County of Union

May 18, 1998

TOWNSHIP OF BERKELEY HEIGHTS, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT/CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF UNION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT/CROSS-RESPONDENT.



Before Judges D'Annunzio, A.a. Rodr¡guez and Coburn.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coburn, J.A.D.

[9]    Argued April 30, 1998 *fn1

On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

The County of Union appeals and the Township of Berkeley Heights cross-appeals from a summary judgment in the Tax Court which eliminated the tax exempt status of county property, known as the John E. Runnells Hospital, effective August 1, 1993. The judgment imposed an assessment of $4,376,000 for the last five months of 1993 and all of 1994, which translates into a tax burden on the County of approximately $250,453.

The property had been owned by the County since 1911 and had been actively devoted to providing health care, a public purpose, until 1991. In 1985, the County contracted to sell the property to a private corporation, Connell Rice & Sugar, Inc. Title closed a decade later in June 1995. The County contends that the property did not lose its tax exempt status until title closed. The Township contends that taxation of the property should have been permitted as of January 1, 1993.

The Township concedes that after contracting to sell the property, and after the patients were removed in 1991, the County was entitled to continued tax exempt status while the property was being readied for transfer for a reasonable period of time. The dispute centers on the question of when that time expired. The Township claims that the closing of title should have occurred by the end of 1992. The County relies upon the presence of various environmental and other problems which it claims delayed the closing, despite all its efforts, until June 1995. The Tax Court, after considering the evidence bearing on those issues, determined that by July 23, 1993, the date on which the County sent a time-of-the-essence letter to its purchaser, the reasonable time for property preparation had expired and the property was no longer being devoted to a public purpose. We find that the position taken by the County is sound and that the Tax Court judgment must be reversed.

I.

In 1911, the County of Union purchased the property, consisting of about sixty-four acres, and began construction of a treatment facility for tuberculosis, which opened in 1912 as the Bonnie Burn Sanitarium. In 1955, the facility expanded to include general medical services and was renamed John E. Runnells Hospital. In 1966, a large nursing home for the care of the elderly was added. By the early 1980s the hospital was experiencing substantial operating deficits and the County decided to sell the property and open a new hospital on another site.

In 1985, the County agreed to sell the property to Connell, Rice & Sugar, Inc. ("Connell"), for $13,500,000. The agreement was unusual in that Connell was required to pay all but $1,350,000 of the purchase price by January 31, 1986. Although the contract indicates that the initial $12,150,000 was to be held in escrow pending closing, in fact, and apparently without objection from Connell, that money was used for construction of the replacement health-care facility, which was to be erected within three years on another site in Berkeley Heights. Towards the end of 1991, construction of the new facility, transfer of all patients, and closing of the Runnells site had been accomplished. However, there was still much to be done before the sale to Connell could be completed.

On the critical issue of whether or not excessive time had been spent in preparing the property for closing, the County relied primarily upon the affidavit of Armand A. Fiorletti, the holder of a master's degree in civil engineering and a licensed professional engineer, land surveyor, and planner in this state. He became the County's Director of Engineering in 1978, and he currently holds the position of Director of the Department of Operational Services for the County. Within his jurisdiction are the divisions of engineering, planning, buildings and grounds, public works, parks, and recreation. He supervises a work force of almost 500 employees. Mr. Fiorletti's affidavit contains the following information bearing on the complex and time consuming problems which confronted the County as it attempted to satisfy environmental and other concerns which impeded closing:

4. In my professional capacity I was called upon to make numerous recommendations during this period of time to the Board of Chosen Freeholders relative to measures to be taken by the County to comply with the applicable statutes, rules and regulations of the DEP relative to environmental remediation on the site, specifically relating to the landfill and underground storage tanks. I also recommended to the Board of Chosen Freeholders which type of professional consultants and contractors was required, and my Department prepared the necessary Requests For Proposals as well as technical specifications where appropriate.

5. I personally monitored the scope and progress of the work and its conformance with all DEP requirements. I approved all requisitions for payments as well as recommending to the Board of Chosen Freeholders the issuance of any necessary change orders.

6. I am aware that the Township of Berkeley Heights asserts that the County "abandoned" the subject property. This position is without foundation in fact. I was intimately involved with the County activities, work and efforts on the site from as early as 1987 when James C. Anderson Associates (JCA) was hired to provide professional services and guidance relative to the closure of the landfill on the property up until title was passed in June of 1995. An outline of the work and activities of the County on this site during the relevant time period is hereinafter set forth:

A. LANDFILL

(1) The landfill at JERH was originally permitted by the DEP in 1979.

(2) Subsequent to the execution of the contract of sale in 1985 with the contract purchaser, Connell Rice & Sugar, the County retained JCA in 1987 to prepare, pursuant to DEP regulations, a Closure and Post Closure Care and Financial Plan for the landfill on the ...


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