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Russo v. Township of Plumsted

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 11, 2014

SAM S. RUSSO, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF PLUMSTED, RONALD S. DANCER, Mayor (former) and Business Administrator (current), Plumsted Township, MICHAEL LYNCH, Public Safety Director, Plumsted Township (former), GLENN RICCARDI, Construction Official, Zoning Officer, Plumsted Township (current), MAUREEN S. FRANCIS, County Tax Assessor, Plumsted Township (current), DAVID FRIEDMAN, District Director, Ocean County Soil Conservation District (former), RYAN P. ALLEN, Senior Planner, Farmland Preservation Program, Ocean County Department of Planning (current), Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

PETER G. SHERIDAN, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Ryan P. Allen's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Sam S. Russo's ("Russo" or "Plaintiff") Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6)[1], or in the alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56, or Motion for a More Definite Statement pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(e) (ECF No. 3). Defendants Township of Plumsted, Ronald S. Dancer, Michael Lynch, Glenn Riccardi and Maureen S. Francis and Defendant David Friedman have filed separate motions requesting the same relief relying on the Brief and Certification filed in support of Defendant Allen's motion. (ECF Nos. 6, 18). Plaintiff, who owns property located in Plumsted Township, New Jersey, alleges that Defendants entered into an unlawful conspiracy to deny a farmland designation on that property in violation of his constitutional rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Court decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 78(b). For the reasons set forth herein, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are granted and Defendants' alternative Motions for Summary Judgment or for a More Definite Statement are dismissed as moot.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Parties

Plaintiff Sam S. Russo owns and conducts farming operations on an approximately 100 acre property located at 27 Hopkins Lane, Cream Ridge, New Jersey (Block 58, Lots 13 and 14 and Block 61, Lot 14) in Plumsted Township. (Compl. at ¶¶ 3, 5). Defendant Township of Plumsted is a municipality located in Ocean County. ( Id. at ¶ 16). Defendant Ronald S. Dancer is the former Mayor of Plumsted who currently serves as the Township's Business Administrator. ( Id. at ¶ 6). Defendant Maureen S. Francis currently serves as the Township's Tax Assessor. ( Id. at ¶ 7). Defendant Glenn Riccardi currently serves as a Construction Code Official and Zoning Officer for the Township. ( Id. at ¶ 8). Defendant Michael Lynch is the former Public Safety Director for the Township. ( Id. at ¶ 9). Defendant Ryan P. Allen is a former Senior Planner with the Ocean County Department of Planning which administers the Farmland Preservation Program in Ocean County. ( Id. at ¶ 10). Defendant David Friedman is the former District Director of the Ocean County Soil Conservation District which provides natural resource conservation services in Ocean County. ( Id. at ¶ 11).

B. Factual Background

On or about February 19, 1998, Plaintiff Sam S. Russo purchased a tract of land, approximately seventy-one acres in size, located at 27 Hopkins Lane, Cream Ridge, New Jersey in Plumsted Township (the "Property"). ( Id. at ¶ 13). While the Property had previously been utilized as a farm, the prior owner had allowed the farmland designation on the Property to lapse after failing to tile the required Application for Farmland Assessment with the Township prior to the annual August 1 deadline. ( Id. ).[2] After purchasing the Property, Plaintiff immediately began cultivating and utilizing the land as a farm in an effort to restore the Property's farmland designation. On July 29, 1998, in accordance with the requirements of the New Jersey Farmland Assessment Act of 1964, 54:4-23.1 et seq., Plaintiff tiled an Application for Farmland Assessment with Plumsted Township. ( Id. at ¶ 24). During his first year of ownership, Plaintiff raised, bred and sold between twelve and seventy-five hogs and planted and harvested approximately forty acres of rye straw on the Property. ( Id. at ¶ 15).

Throughout 1999, Plaintiff continued to utilize the Property for farmland operations increasing the number of acres dedicated to rye straw to approximately fifty. ( Id. at ¶ 16). In keeping with the requirements of the Farmland Assessment Act, he filed another Application for Farmland Assessment with the Township on July 20, 1999. ( Id. at ¶ 24). In 2000, after having devoted the Property to agricultural and horticultural uses for two consecutive years, Plaintiff received a farmland designation on the Property. In 2001, he continued farmland operations on the Property and increased his rye straw crops an additional ten acres to approximately sixty acres. ( Id. at ¶ 17). In 2002, he purchased an additional twenty-six acres of land adjacent to his existing acreage. From 2002 to February 2008, Plaintiff maintained his livestock operations, cultivated approximately sixty acres of rye straw and utilized the remaining acreage as woodlands. ( Id. at ¶¶ 18-19). He purchased an additional acre of land in 2007. In 2008, Plaintiff cleared approximately twenty acres of woodland, wherein he placed additional penning for livestock. ( Id. at ¶ 20). The following year, he purchased an additional two acres of adjacent land, bringing the total size of the Property to approximately 100 acres. ( Id. at ¶ 21). He also added to his livestock operations by acquiring twelve Texas Longhorn cattle which he penned on the Property. ( Id. ). In 2012, Plaintiff added twenty acres of corn to his farming operation and increased his livestock to include upwards of ninety hogs, twelve beef cattle, three horses, twenty-three sheep, three goats and twenty-five chickens. ( Id. at ¶ 22). As of August 2013, he continued to maintain a robust farming operation on the Property. ( Id. at ¶ 23).

In late July of each year, Plaintiff would tile his Application for Farmland Assessment with Defendant Maureen S. Francis, the Tax Assessor for the Township. ( Id. at ¶ 25). In those applications, Plaintiff would seek farmland designation for ninety of the 100 acres of the Property ( Id. at ¶ 26). The remaining ten acres were reserved for storage and were not specifically utilized for farm or woodland operations. ( Id. ). Accordingly, up until 2010, Plaintiff received farmland designation for approximately ninety of the 100 acres. ( Id. ). In 2010, however, he allegedly received a call from Defendant Ryan P. Allen, Senior Planner with the Ocean County Department of Planning, notifying him that the Township had reduced his farmland designation to ten acres. ( Id. at ¶ 27). According to Plaintiff, he never received any notification or explanation from the Township or Defendant Francis prior to the reduction. ( Id. ). After receiving the notification, Plaintiff inquired as to the validity of Allen's statements from Defendant Francis who confirmed the decrease in farmland designation. ( Id. at ¶ 28). According to Plaintiff, Francis advised him at that time that the reduction was based on her having viewed an aerial photograph of the Property on Google Maps and observed that a portion of the Property was being used to store scrap metal. ( Id. ). While Plaintiff admits to storing scrap metal on the Property, he contends that it was placed on the ten acre parcel for which he did not seek farmland designation. ( Id. at 28-29). He subsequently "entered into the tax appellate process in the tax year 2010... to appeal the downgrade of designated acreage by Defendant Francis." ( Id. at ¶ 30). The tax appeal was later denied leaving Plaintiff with farmland designation on only ten of the ninety acres. ( Id. ).

Plaintiff alleges that the initial decrease and subsequent elimination of his farmland designation was the result of an unlawful conspiracy amongst the named Defendants that began in 2009. According to Plaintiff, a neighbor contacted the Plumsted Township Police Department in January 2009 to complain of noise emanating from dirt bikes being driven on the Property by Russo's children. ( Id. at ¶ 34). Defendant Michael Lynch, the Public Safety Director for the Township who was also one of Russo's neighbors, thereafter allegedly ordered a helicopter fly-by of the Property to conduct surveillance. ( Id. at ¶ 35). According to Plaintiff, "the images displayed nothing more than a few barn structures and open space." ( Id. ). Several months later, in March or April of 2009, Defendant Lynch allegedly "climbed over the gate to the Property... and verbally accosted Plaintiff' after hearing the sound of dirt bikes. ( Id. at ¶ 36). He later allegedly ordered a tow truck to the Property to tow the bikes away, however, no action was ultimately taken. ( Id. ). Throughout the remainder of 2009, the Plumsted Township Police Department issued approximately fifty tickets to Plaintiff for violating the Township's local noise ordinance based on his children's continued operation of dirt bikes on the Property. ( Id. at ¶ 37). In late 2009, however, Plaintiff's tickets were dismissed after it was determined that the Township's noise ordinance was improperly drafted and unenforceable. ( Id. ).

In December 2009 or January 2010, then-Mayor Ronald S. Dancer called a Township meeting to discuss the "dirt bike issue" which was attended by, amongst others, Defendant Lynch, Defendant David Friedman, District Director of the Ocean County Soil Conservation District, and an official from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP"). ( Id. at ¶ 38). According to Plaintiff, at that meeting, Defendant Dancer "consistently encouraged the DEP official to start an investigation of... [the] Property, alleging that [it] was being utilized for illegal dumping[.]" ( Id. ). It appears from the record that no immediate action was instituted.

In late July 2010, seven months after the Township meeting, Plaintiff filed his annual Application for Farmland Assessment seeking farmland designation for the full ninety acres in question. ( Id. at ¶ 30). Again, he received farmland designation for only ten acres. ( Id. ). In early 2011, the Township adopted a new noise ordinance which addressed the legal deficiencies of the prior version. ( Id. at ¶ 39). In the months after its adoption, the Plumsted Police Department allegedly returned to Plaintiff's Property on several occasions to take noise readings from the dirt bikes. ( Id. ). According to Plaintiff, "[t]he dirt bike noise emissions were found to be below the legal noise limit under the new ordinance, and as a result of those readings, no new tickets were issued." ( Id. ). During this time period, Defendant Dancer allegedly "continued to seek out DEP involvement by and through Defendant David Friedman... who in turn continued to press the DEP to start an investigation at the Russo Property[.]" ( Id. at ¶ 40). In mid-2011, the DEP launched an investigation of the Russo Property for illegal dumping. ( Id. at ¶ 41).

In late July 2011, despite the ongoing investigation, Plaintiff once again filed his Application for Farmland Assessment seeking farmland designation for the full ninety acres. One month later, on August 25, 2011, Plaintiff allegedly received a copy of correspondence between Defendant Francis and Defendant Glenn Riccardi, a Construction Code Official and Zoning Officer for Plumsted Township, in which Francis advised that no portion of Plaintiff's Property would be eligible for farmland designation due to "various reports and violations issued by various agencies." ( Id. at ¶ 31). According to Plaintiff, "Defendant Riccardi agreed to the disqualification of the Russo Property, despite his full knowledge that the vast majority of the 100 acre site was being utilized for farming." ( Id. ). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Dancer was complicit in the disqualification because he "sits on the Zoning Board[] to which Defendant Riccardi answers." ( Id. ).

To date, Plaintiff continues to maintain the 100 acre property without the benefit of a farmland designation. ( Id. at ¶ 32). He continues to file his Application for Farmland Assessment on a yearly basis, however, the Township has repeatedly denied a farmland designation for any acreage. ( Id. ). According to Plaintiff, "[t]he failure to be able to obtain a farmland designation has seriously and significantly impaired [his] operations... [and] has... forced [him] to sell off livestock, and non-related properties and equipment to fund continued farming operations[.]" ( Id. at ¶ 33). He contends that he "will soon no longer be able to maintain his farm, or pay the property taxes on the Property[]" and that Defendants' "systematic abuse" and denial ...


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