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Rudy's Airport, LLC v. the City of Vineland and the City of Vineland Planning Board

November 2, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, L-686-08.

Per curiam.


Argued March 2, 2011

Before Judges R. B. Coleman, Lihotz and Harris.

Plaintiff Rudy's Airport, LLC (plaintiff or Rudy's), which sought to invalidate the City of Vineland's 2008 Master Plan, Master Plan Reexamination Report and Ordinance No. 2009-72, appeals from two separate July 23, 2010 orders that (1) granted summary judgment in favor of defendants City of Vineland (Vineland or the City) and City of Vineland Planning Board (the Planning Board) and (2) denied plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment. We affirm the Law Division's determinations on the cross-motions for summary judgment. We remand two limited issues for re-argument and reconsideration.

Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs on July 18, 2008. The complaint recounts the history of the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee and that committee's activities that led to prior litigation and a determination by the Law Division that resolutions purporting to adopt the 2006 Master Plan, the 2006 Master Plan Reexamination Report and Ordinance No. 2007-26 were invalid under the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -163, and the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 to -21. The Law Division ruled the Ad Hoc Committee usurped the authority of the Planning Board and the meetings conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee had not been noticed or open to the public.

Promptly following those rulings, then-Mayor Perry Barse convened a teleconference with several professionals: Richard S. Cramer, a professional planner employed by T&M Associates (T&M); a planning board attorney; and the planning board solicitor. The purpose of the discussion was to arrange a March 24, 2008 meeting at which preliminary steps were to be taken to redraft the Master Plan.

On April 9, 2008, the Planning Board held its first public meeting after the invalidation of the 2006 Master Plan. At that meeting, the Planning Board discussed the need to adopt a new Master Plan. Thereafter, on notice to the public, the Planning Board held four additional public meetings.

At the April 28, 2008 public meeting, Cramer submitted a draft 2008 Master Plan and Master Plan Reexamination Report for review by the public and the Planning Board. The draft was further considered on April 29, May 14 and June 3, 2008.

On June 3, 2008, the Planning Board adopted the 2008 Master Plan and Master Plan Reexamination Report, and on June 24, 2008, the City Council adopted Ordinance No. 2008-39 to make the City's Land Use Ordinance (LUO) consistent with the 2008 Master Plan.

Rudy's filed this action, challenging the municipal actions as little more than a rubber stamp endorsement of the 2006 Master Plan and Reexamination Report, spearheaded by the mayor. However, following cross-motions for summary judgment, the motion court concluded that "I dismissed the '06 Plan and then a new '08 Plan was presented and the public was afforded an opportunity to participate when five public meetings occurred and [sic] in the new separate '08 Master Plan process." The court rejected plaintiff's assertion that the mayor had arrogated the Planning Board's powers, and it also rejected the argument the 2008 Master Plan was no more than an illegal byproduct of the 2006 Master Plan. We find no basis to disturb the court's rulings.

Our review of a ruling on motions for summary judgment is de novo, applying the same legal standard as the trial court. Wakefern Food Corp. v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 406 N.J. Super. 524, 538 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 200 N.J. 209 (2009). Thus, we consider, as a motion judge does, "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury [or trier of fact] or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Liberty Surplus Ins. Corp. v. Nowell Amoroso, P.A., 189 N.J. 436, 445-46 (2007) (quoting Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 536 (1995)). Summary judgment must be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). Disputed issues "'of an insubstantial nature'" will not overcome a motion for summary judgment. Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 530 (quoting Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co., 17 N.J. 67, 75 (1954)).

If there is no genuine issue of material fact, we "decide whether the trial court correctly interpreted the law." Massachi v. AHL Servs., Inc., 396 N.J. Super. 486, 494 (App. Div. 2007), certif. denied, 195 N.J. 419 (2008). "A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Plaintiff argues, as it did before the Law Division, that the Planning Board improperly delegated its authority to Cramer, the professional planner it engaged, and that Cramer acted at the direction of the mayor. Plaintiff asserts the Planning Board played no ...

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