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Montclair State University v. County of Passaic

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 23, 2017

COUNTY OF PASSAIC and CITY OF CLIFTON, Defendants-Respondents.

          Argued May 31, 2017

         On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-2866-14.

          Antonio J. Casas argued the cause for appellant (Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf, LLP, attorneys; Samuel G. Destito, of counsel and on the briefs; Mr. Casas and Sandy L. Galacio, Jr., on the briefs).

          Michael H. Glovin argued the cause for respondent County of Passaic (William J. Pascrell, III, Passaic County Counsel, attorney; Mr. Glovin, of counsel and on the brief).

          Marvin J. Brauth argued the cause for respondent City of Clifton (Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, PA, attorneys; Mr. Brauth, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Koblitz, Rothstadt and Sumners.


          ROTHSTADT, J.A.D.

         In Rutgers v. Piluso, 60 N.J. 142 (1972), the Supreme Court addressed the limits of a local government's authority to regulate development of a state university's property that was confined to its campus. In this dispute, we are asked to determine whether those limits apply to a state university's construction of a roadway that intersects with a county road. For the reason expressed herein, we hold that the limits imposed by Rutgers apply equally to the development proposal in this case, reverse the trial judge's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint and remand the matter for a trial.

         Plaintiff Montclair State University (MSU) appeals from the Law Division's March 7, 2016 order dismissing its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief that sought an order permitting it to proceed with the development of a roadway from its campus to Valley Road in Clifton. Prior to filing the complaint, MSU spent approximately six years consulting with defendants County of Passaic and City of Clifton, both of which interposed various objections and concerns about the project. Through various meetings between construction professionals, MSU was able to satisfy most of defendants' concerns about the roadway.

         In 2014, MSU submitted an application to the county for a permit to install traffic controls at the proposed intersection of the roadway and Valley Road. In its cover letter, MSU stated that it was exempt under Rutgers from seeking any approvals from Clifton's land use boards. When the county failed to respond, MSU filed a complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, seeking a determination that the county's refusal to issue the permit was contrary to law and directing that it be issued so MSU could construct the proposed roadway.

         At a hearing held on the return date of an order to show cause, the trial judge addressed the limits of the county's authority to withhold approval. He stated that the county did not have jurisdiction over the speed limit on the roadway as it is on state land. He also noted that while defendants could be legitimately concerned with a "palpably unsafe" intersection, they could not block the proposal simply because it would generate more traffic. Despite those observations, the judge denied the relief plaintiff sought, reasoning MSU had not complied with its obligations under Rutgers only because it needed an updated traffic study. The judge, however, specifically contemplated that he would be "review[ing the] up-to-date expert reports" and making the ultimate determination whether the project should proceed. On November 6, 2014, he entered an order requiring the parties to submit updated traffic studies and requiring "the parties [to] consult, which shall include, without limitation, appearances before the Planning Boards of the City of Clifton and the County of Passaic." The court retained jurisdiction in the event the parties could not reach a resolution.

         In accordance with the judge's order, the parties obtained updated traffic studies that concluded traffic conditions had not changed from the last completed traffic study in 2004. MSU's expert concluded that its proposed "design does not create [a] safety risk." Defendants' expert concluded that the roadway did not meet certain American Association of State Highway and Transportation (AASHTO) and New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) criteria. On April 1, 2015, the parties and their respective experts met again to resolve the matter. Defendants made numerous recommendations to the proposed design, which MSU reviewed with its experts. Following the meeting, MSU proposed additional revisions to its plans, which the county found "acceptable." The county also asked MSU's engineers to consider redesigning the road for higher speeds, but MSU rejected this recommendation explaining that it "would have the unintended consequence of encouraging higher operating speeds and could result in an unsafe condition." In response, the county disagreed, its counsel stating that a thirty-five mile-per-hour design would support anticipated traffic volume and explaining that "it is totally unreasonable to expect drivers to adhere to a 15 or 20 mph speed limit along a newly constructed roadway." MSU submitted a revised plan that reflected changes that satisfied some of the county's concerns. The county, however, refused to issue a permit because it believed the roadway design continued to fail to meet applicable AASHTO/NJDOT standards and because Clifton's approval was required for a proposed traffic signal as it would impact municipal roadways.

         Believing it had reached an impasse with defendants, MSU wrote to the court and requested the matter be relisted for a decision. Clifton objected, arguing that MSU had not returned to its planning board. While awaiting a response from the judge, MSU's and the county's engineers corresponded about the roadway's design, the proposed traffic signal and speed limits. Clifton did not participate in the exchanges between MSU and the county.

         The trial judge heard the matter again on February 25, 2016. MSU argued that it had revised its plans to resolve the county's and Clifton's concerns regarding safety, that the only area on which they could not agree was the design of the roadway that was located entirely on MSU's property, and MSU had sole jurisdiction over the roadway. It also argued there was expert testimony that confirmed the roadway design was safe, and had met all of the requirements under Rutgers. The county acknowledged that MSU had accommodated nearly all of ...

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