On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1021-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Waugh, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Rodríguez, Payne and Waugh.
The individual plaintiffs appeal the dismissal of their declaratory judgment action against the State of New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council (Council), and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority (Authority)*fn1 (collectively, defendants). We affirm.
According to the complaint, the individual plaintiffs are New Jersey farmers owning tracts of land, ranging in size from 18 to 150 acres, within the "preservation area" created by the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (Highlands Act), N.J.S.A. 13:20-1 to -35, which was signed into law in August 2004. Plaintiffs, along with the County of Warren (Warren County), alleged that: (1) the Council's failure to meet the statutory deadlines established by N.J.S.A. 13:20-8 for the adoption of a master plan frustrated the legislative scheme, such that the Council's decision to extend its time to act should be declared ultra vires (count one); (2) the statutory exemptions established by N.J.S.A. 13:20-28 improperly placed the entire burden of development restrictions upon owners of larger parcels of land, unlawfully treating similarly situated property owners differently in violation of the equal protection guarantee inherent in article one, paragraph one of the New Jersey Constitution (count two); (3) the transfer of development rights program to be established under N.J.S.A. 13:20-13 is not a viable funding source for the acquisition of exceptional natural resource lands to be protected under the Highlands Act (count three); and (4) the boundaries of the preservation area set forth in N.J.S.A. 13:20-7(b) were created without a legitimate scientific basis, and therefore violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution (count four).
In lieu of an answer, defendants moved to dismiss. The motion judge ultimately granted the motion and dismissed the amended complaint, relying in large part on our opinion in OFP, L.L.C. v. State, 395 N.J. Super. 571 (App. Div. 2007), aff'd o.b., 197 N.J. 418 (2008), which upheld the Highlands Act on due process and other grounds. The judge also dismissed the challenge to the Council's action in extending its time to adopt the master plan for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that the issue was a final decision of a state administrative agency subject only to our direct review pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(2). The judge found that there was no legal merit in plaintiffs' remaining claims. Finally, he denied plaintiffs' cross-motion for leave to file a further amended complaint, which would have added an additional plaintiff and stated a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983.
Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration. That motion was denied in April 2008, with the resulting order filed on May 15, 2008. This appeal followed. Warren County did not file an appeal and has not participated in the appeal filed by the individual plaintiffs.
On appeal, plaintiffs raise the following issues:
POINT ONE: THE NEW JERSEY HIGHLANDS WATER PROTECTION AND PLANNING COUNCIL HAS ACTED ULTRA VIRES BECAUSE IT DID NOT ADOPT A MASTER PLAN WITHIN THE STATUTORY MANDATED DEADLINES AND THEREFORE THE ACT MUST BE SET ASIDE.
POINT TWO: THE COURT BELOW ERRED BECAUSE IT DID NOT RECOGNIZE THE RIGHT TO FARM AS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT, AND THEREFORE APPLIED THE RATIONAL BASIS STANDARD INSTEAD OF THE STRICT SCRUTINY STANDARD IN CONSIDERING PLAINTIFF-FARMERS' EQUAL PROTECTION RIGHTS.
POINT THREE: EVEN IF THE COURT BELOW APPLIED THE CORRECT STANDARD TO APPELLATE-PLAINTIFFS' EQUAL PROTECTION CHALLENGE TO THE HIGHLANDS ACT, IT SHOULD HAVE FOUND THAT THE ACT VIOLATES THE PLAINTIFF-FARMERS' EQUAL PROTECTION RIGHTS UNDER THE RATIONAL BASIS TEST BECAUSE THE HIGHLANDS ACT IS NOT JUSTIFIED BY AN APPROPRIATE SCIENTIFIC BASIS.
POINT FOUR: THE COURT BELOW ERRED BY NOT FINDING THAT THE STATUTORY EXEMPTIONS TO THE HIGHLANDS ACT VIOLATED THE EQUAL PROTECTION RIGHTS OF FARMERS BY IMPOSING THE MOST STRINGENT DEVELOPMENT RESTRICTIONS ON OWNERS OF LARGE PIECES OF LAND.
POINT FIVE: THE COURT BELOW ERRED BECAUSE IT DID NOT CONSIDER THE EXPERT REPORTS AND OTHER DOCUMENTS THAT WERE MADE PART OF THE RECORD BELOW.
The motion judge dismissed the case on the basis of the defendants' Rule 4:6-2 motion, which should generally be granted "in only the rarest of instances." NCP Litig. Trust v. KPMG LLP, 187 N.J. 353, 365 (2006) (quoting Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elecs. Corp., 116 N.J. 739, 772 (1989)). A motion judge's review of a complaint is to be "undertaken with a generous and hospitable approach," ibid. (quoting Printing Mart-Morristown, supra, 116 N.J. at 746), and "the court should assume that the non-movant's allegations are true and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences," ibid. (citing Smith v. SBC Commc'ns Inc., 178 N.J. 265, 282 (2004)). "If 'the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned even from an obscure statement of claim,' then the complaint should survive this preliminary stage." Ibid. (quoting Craig v. Suburban Cablevision, Inc., 140 N.J. 623, 626 (1995)).
Where, however, it is clear that the complaint states no basis for relief and that discovery would not provide one, dismissal of the complaint is appropriate. Sickles v. Cabot Corp., 379 N.J. Super. 100, 106 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 185 N.J. 297 (2005) ("[A] court must dismiss the plaintiff's complaint if it has failed to articulate a legal basis entitling plaintiff to relief."); Holmin v. TRW, Inc., 330 N.J. Super. 30, 32 (App. Div. 2000), aff'd o.b., 167 N.J. 205 (2001); Camden County Energy Recovery Assocs. v. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 320 N.J. Super. 59, 64 (App. Div. 1999), aff'd o.b., 170 N.J. 246 (2001); Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 4.1.1 to R. 4:6-2 (2009). "However, a dismissal is mandated where the factual allegations are palpably insufficient to support a claim upon which relief can be granted." Rieder v. State, 221 N.J. Super. 547, 552 (App. Div. 1987).
If materials "outside the pleadings are considered, the motion is treated as a motion for summary judgment." Enourato v. New Jersey Bldg. Auth., 182 N.J. Super. 58, 64-65 (App. Div. 1981) (citing R. 4:6-2). Although the motion judge did not specifically refer to treating the motion as one for summary judgment, he acknowledged that both sides submitted extensive exhibits. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, a motion judge must "consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). For present purposes, that standard is substantially the same as the standard for a Rule 4:6-2 motion.
Because there was no evidentiary hearing, and hence no judicial factfinding in the Law Division, our review of the decision is plenary. Marshak v. Weser, 390 N.J. Super. 387, 390 (App. Div. 2007).
We turn first to the issue of the validity of the regional master plan. With respect to that issue, there were clearly no factual disputes, so we are dealing with a question of law only.
The Highlands Act created the Highlands Council, N.J.S.A. 13:20-4, which was "delegated responsibility for land use planning in the Highlands Region, consisting of nearly 800,000 acres in eighty-eight municipalities located in parts of Morris, Sussex, Passaic, Bergen, Warren, Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, N.J.S.A. 13:20-7(a)." OFP, supra, 395 N.J. Super. at 576. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 13:20-8(a), the Council was required, "within 18 months after the date of its first meeting, and after holding at least five public hearings in various locations in the Highlands Region and at least one public hearing in Trenton, [to] prepare and adopt a regional master plan for the Highlands Region." The Council held its initial organizing meeting on December 16, 2004, consequently it was statutorily required to adopt a regional master plan by June 2006.
In April 2006, the Council adopted Resolution 2006-17, setting forth its schedule for adopting the regional master plan with a target date for adoption in December 2006. The Governor did not veto the Council's action, although he had the authority to do so pursuant to N.J.S.A. 13:20-5(j).
On November 30, 2006, the Council adopted its Resolution 2006-30, authorizing the release of a draft regional master plan and providing for January 2007 public hearings on the plan. The comment ...