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Salem Management Co. v. Township of Lopatcong

August 21, 2006

SALEM MANAGEMENT COMPANY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF LOPATCONG, LOPATCONG RENT LEVELING BOARD, LOPATCONG MAYOR AND TOWN COUNCIL, FRANK BAYLOR, MARY BAYLOR, ROBERT A. FLEMING, HENRIETTA TITTLE, ANN HELLER, ANN MCGINLEY, JOSEPHINE DEMONTI, MAVE HOLENSKI, JOSEPH HOPEK, AND ANTHONY RANALLO, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
ZUFENG LEI, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT
v.
BRAKELEY ASSOCIATES, DEFENDANT, AND SALEM MANAGEMENT COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Civil Part, Warren County, WRN-L-92-04 and DC-1212-04 (consolidated).

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Submitted: March 7, 2006

Before Judges Kestin, Hoens and Seltzer.

Salem Management Company (SMC), plaintiff in one of these matters consolidated at trial and a defendant in the other, appeals from the trial court's orders of June 23, 2005 and July 12, 2005, entered on cross-motions for summary judgment, upholding the Township of Lopatcong's rent control ordinance and applying it to the rent levels for previously vacant apartments.

We affirm.

In addition to memorializing the ruling on the statutory validity issues, the June 23, 2005 order provided:

The Lopatcong Rent Leveling Ordinance is hereby interpreted to allow Plaintiff to increase rents on all apartments, whether vacant or occupied, at a rate of three percent (3%) per annum per apartment. Plaintiff must follow the usual procedure in the Ordinance to obtain the three percent (3%) annual increases. Plaintiff is not permitted to charge any rent above a three percent (3%) per annum per apartment increase unless expressly authorized under the Ordinance[.]

That order went on to establish some terms affecting the rents of particular tenants and credits due them. It concluded:

[O]ne rental increase per year is allowable on all rental units, whether occupied or vacant, as provided for in the Lopatcong Rent Control Ordinance. The 3% allowable increase shall be calculated against the previous year's base rent as provided for in the Lopatcong Rent Control Ordinance.

The July 12 order dealt specifically and exclusively with issues having to do with the claims of Zufeng Lei, plaintiff in one of the consolidated matters, including rent payment and credit particulars.

Lopatcong Township's rent control ordinance allows a landlord to increase rent by no more than 3 percent above a tenant's previous rent. SMC owns the 400-unit Brakeley Gardens apartments in Lopatcong. When certain Brakeley residents complained about SMC's rent prices, the municipality's rent leveling Board (the Board) adopted resolutions ordering SMC to refund overcharges in as many as ten instances. SMC disagreed with the Board's decision and filed this action in lieu of prerogative writs in April 2004, claiming, inter alia, that the ordinance could not validly apply to vacant apartments.

Judge Coyle stated the reasons for his rulings in a comprehensive, well-considered oral opinion. He began with a review of the procedural history and factual background:

We have a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs arising from a challenge to the Lopatcong Township Rent Control Ordinance. The Ordinance was originally adopted in 1982 and was recently readopted in April 2001 and again in 2003. ...


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