On appeal from Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket Nos. 5863-97, 5762-98, 4025-99, 3532-00, 2419-01, 3319-02, and 5696-03.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: November 15, 2010
Before Judges C.L. Miniman and LeWinn.
Plaintiff Jesse Rosenblum appeals from an October 30, 2009, final order denying "all applications for reconsideration, reopening, or amendment of findings and judgments [in Tax Court Docket Nos. 5863-97, 5762-98, 4025-99, 3532-00, 2419-01, 3319-02, and 5696-03] or any other actions concerning assessment of Block 1402, Lot 24.01, (102 Blanch Avenue) for tax years 1997 through 2003." We now affirm.
Plaintiff filed petitions with the Bergen County Tax Board (the Board) contesting the 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002 farmland assessments for Block 1402, Lot 24.01, located in defendant Borough of Closter (the Borough), commonly known as "Watkins Farm," which is owned by defendant Beverly Watkins (Watkins).*fn1 When those petitions were denied by the County Tax Board, plaintiff filed annual appeals with the Tax Court. In order to resolve the issues on appeal, we must address a tangled procedural web as a result of the Tax Court judge's failure to timely enter orders disposing of motions and judgments affirming assessments. Before doing so, we briefly describe the property.
When Watkins acquired the 5.45-acre property*fn2 in 1989, it was not used as a farm. Watkins claimed and was given a farmland assessment shortly after she acquired the property. The property is in a residential district and is bordered to the east by the 150-acre Closter Nature Center. More than half of the northern boundary is along Dwars Kill Stream, and the property is bisected diagonally from north to south by Smith Brook. There are single-family homes along the western and southern borders. The improvements on the property include a home, a barn, a pool, and a cabana. The property is partially wooded and contains some wetlands.
The appeals for tax years 1997 through 2000 were tried during the fall of 2001. The Tax Court judge placed his decision on those four appeals on the record on November 4, 2002. Although the 2001 and 2002 appeals were pending at that time, the judge did not address them. He found that the use of the property had not changed over the years from 1997 to 2000. He also found that Watkins had satisfied the income requirements for each year. The remaining questions to be decided were (1) whether the nature of the agricultural and horticultural activities conducted on the property qualified for farmland assessment and, if so, (2) whether those activities were conducted on at least five acres.
As to the first question, he found that the goats, sheep, chickens, and geese on the property were not exclusively maintained and fed in pens but were allowed to freely roam on the property for feeding and grazing purposes sufficient to permit the property to qualify for farmland assessments. Additionally, the property was used for the production of crops, fruit, ornamental shrubs, vegetables, decorative grasses, and other products that are raised on the land. He found that the evidence presented by defendants fairly preponderated over that which was presented by plaintiff.
The judge further found that the assessor understood the factors to consider in making her assessments and that she visited the property twice yearly. He found that she made a reasonable inspection and made proper assessments. He concluded that the opinions expressed by plaintiff's expert were less weighty than that of the assessor in light of their differing expertise. Thus, "the assessor's observations and conclusions establish[ed] the appropriate factual basis for allowance of the assessment."
Turning to the second question, the judge observed that no precise physical measurement was made by either party, nor did any surveyor testify. He observed that the house, pool, and other recreational areas used by the family and the water course that traversed the property had to be excluded from the farmland assessment. He observed that whether a full five acres remained for farmland was a close question. Nonetheless, he concluded that the assessor's observations established a factual basis for concluding that there were more than five acres utilized as farmland and that her testimony respecting same was entitled to more weight than that of the parties. Thus, he concluded that the property was entitled to the farmland assessments for tax years 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. The judgments for each of these tax years were not entered until June 22, 2007. No appeal was taken from any of these judgments.
January 2004 Motion to Vacate
After the judge's oral decision on November 4, 2002, plaintiff filed a series of motions, one of which was a January 26, 2004, motion*fn3 to vacate the decisions for tax years 1997-2002.*fn4 The Borough opposed this motion and Watkins cross-moved for summary judgment, which plaintiff opposed. The judge issued a written decision denying plaintiff's motion on February 25, 2004. He found that "this motion presents no question of law or fact not adequately considered at the time of the original decision" with respect to tax years 1997 through 2000. He scheduled the cross-motion for argument on March 26, 2004.
On that date, the judge observed that the appeals for tax years 2001, 2002, and 2003 were still open and were the subject of Watkins's summary judgment motion. Plaintiff did not object to the judge granting summary judgment for tax years 2002 and 2003 on the ground that the essential facts had not changed since the time of the trial covering tax years 1997 to 2000. As to tax year 2001, plaintiff urged that the application for a farmland assessment had not been timely filed. Watkins urged that it was timely filed, but plaintiff submitted an application dated August 16,*fn5 2001, which would have been untimely. The assessor was not available to resolve the issue, and the matter was carried to April 23, 2004.
On the rescheduled date, the judge observed that farmland assessment applications were required by N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.13 to be filed by August 1 of the year preceding the tax year for which the assessment was sought. The assessor submitted a certification which characterized the August 16, 2001, dating of the application as being a scrivener's error, which plaintiff did not ...