The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stanger, A.J.S.C.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS
This matter before the court arises from plaintiff's appeal of a decision by defendant Township of Pilesgrove (Pilesgrove) denying plaintiff's petition for deannexation of 36.27 acres of vacant, undeveloped farmland owned by the Gemberling Family Partnership and located in Pilesgrove Township. Plaintiff, D'Anastasio Corp., the contract purchaser/builder of the entire Gemberling property, is seeking to deannex the portion of the Gemberling property located in Pilesgrove and annex that portion to Woodstown for purposes of development. There are no reported vacant land annexation decisions.
N.J.S.A. 40A:7-12 permits land from one municipality to be annexed to contiguous land of another municipality. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:7-12, two-thirds of the full membership of the governing body of the municipality in which said land is located, here Pilesgrove, must consent to the annexation. N.J.S.A. 40A:7-12.1 provides the standard for judicial review when a petition is denied and provides as follows:
In any judicial review of the refusal of the governing body of the municipality in which the land is located or the governing body of the municipality to which annexation is sought to consent to the annexation, the petitioners have the burden of establishing that the refusal to consent to the petition was arbitrary or unreasonable, that refusal to consent to the annexation is detrimental to the economic and social well-being of a majority of the residents of the affected land, and that the annexation will not cause a significant injury to the well-being of the municipality in which the land is located.
The statute clearly places on the petitioner the burden to establish the following: (1) that the refusal to consent to the petition was arbitrary or unreasonable, (2) that refusal to consent to the annexation is detrimental to the economic and social well-being of a majority of the residents of the affected land, and (3) that the annexation will not cause a significant injury to the well-being of the municipality in which the land is located. The following discussion will address each of the preceding, conjunctive elements in turn.
Pilesgrove's Refusal To Consent To Plaintiff's Annexation Petition Was Not Arbitrary Or Unreasonable
Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:7-12.1, the petitioner has the burden of establishing that the refusal to consent to the petition was arbitrary or unreasonable. "As a general matter, in reviewing decisions of local boards our courts recognize that such bodies have particular knowledge of local conditions and are therefore extended 'wide latitude in the exercise of their delegated discretion.'" Avalon Manor Improvement Ass'n, Inc. v. Middle Twp., 370 N.J. Super. 73, 91 (App. Div.) (citing Booth v. Board of Adj. of Rockaway Twp., 50 N.J. 302, 306 (1967)), certif. denied, 182 N.J. 143 (2004). There is a presumption of validity accorded to municipal actions. Russell v. Stafford Twp., 261N.J. Super.43, 61 (Law Div. 1992) (citing Ward v. Montgomery Twp., 28 N.J. 529, 539 (1959), and Quick Chek Food Stores v. Springfield Twp., 83 N.J. 438, 447 (1980)). "The law presumes that municipal governing bodies will act fairly, with proper motives and for valid reasons." Ibid. (citing Kramer v. Sea Girt Bd. of Adj., 45 N.J. 268, 296 (1965)). This presumption "may only be overcome by a showing of arbitrariness or unreasonableness." Ibid. (citing Dock Watch Hollow Quarry Pit v. Warren Twp., 142 N.J. Super. 103, 116 (App. Div. 1976), aff'd, 74 N.J. 312 (1977); Hutton Park Gardens v. West Orange Town Council, 68 N.J. 543, 564 (1975), and Riggs v. Long Beach Twp., 109 N.J. 601, 611 (1988)); Avalon Manor, supra, 370 N.J. Super. at 90. "Arbitrary and capricious" means "'willful and unreasoning action, without consideration and in disregard of circumstances.'" Beattystown v. Department of Envtl. Prot., 313 N.J. Super. 236, 248 (App. Div. 1998) (quoting Worthington v. Fauver, 88N.J.183, 204-05 (1982)). Application of these principles to the present matter warrants the conclusion that Pilesgrove did not act arbitrarily or unreasonably in denying the deannexation petition.
Pilesgrove denied plaintiff's petition in reliance upon Christopher Warren's Economic and Social Impact Analysis. Preliminarily, Warren's report concluded that 27.5 acres were buildable and would support about twelve to thirteen residential building lots under existing zoning (plaintiff contends that seven to eight residential units could be constructed under existing zoning). If the property in question (PIQ) were rezoned, assuming water and sewer were made available, then the PIQ would support sixty single family detached units. Further, the report concluded that development of the PIQ was reasonable because of the limited size of the Borough of Woodstown and the attractiveness of the town. Given the preceding preliminary conclusions, the report went on to address both economic and social impacts of the deannexation on Pilesgrove.
Concerning economic impact, Warren's report discussed economic impacts if the subject parcel were developed under current zoning and a possible rezoning allowing for a higher density, similar to that proposed by plaintiff. Under current zoning, the economic impact would result in losses of $116,000 in annual tax revenues ($3.4 million over twenty years), a $20,000 to $40,000 development fee as a compensatory payment, a $12,000 recreation assessment fee, a $1,200 per year Farmland Trust Fund tax ($35,000 over twenty years), and $11,366 in rollback taxes. Under a rezoning, the economic impact would result in losses of $348,000 in annual tax revenues ($10 million over twenty years), a $120,000 development fee as a compensatory payment, a $3,600 per year Farmland Trust Fund tax ($106,000 over twenty years), and $11, 366 in rollback taxes. Furthermore, the Warren report concluded that Pilesgrove is in need of ratables to defer school costs because Pilesgrove has about 65% of the total ratables of the shared school district with Woodstown, but is responsible for about 75% of the total school budget. Warren's final conclusion on economic impact is that deannexation will "have a significant economic impact."
Concerning social impact, Warren concluded that "the proposal does not have an impact on the social fabric of the Township in the sense that deannexation will not result in the loss of valuable members of the community." Furthermore, since many services and facilities are shared, the social impact is reduced. However, the report goes on to address the subjective impact on Pilesgrove's image and how the proposal is in direct conflict with the balanced community planning objective since Pilesgrove is deprived of the ability to control all of its potential growth areas.
Relying upon Warren's report and testimony, the Pilesgrove Planning Board recommended to the Township to refuse consent to the deannexation. The Planning Board memorialized its decision in Resolution No. 04-137, which sets forth most of the conclusions in the Warren Report. A thorough examination of the record before this court, given the legal principles enunciated in the beginning of this discussion, establishes adequate evidence to support the conclusion that defendants did not act arbitrarily or unreasonably, but rather, based their decision denying the petition in reliance upon the report prepared by and testimony of Pilesgrove's professional planner, Mr. Warren. ...