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Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. v. Township of Berkeley Heights

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

July 18, 2019

ALCATEL-LUCENT USA INC., Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Submitted March 6, 2019

          On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No. 6661-2015.

          Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP, attorneys for appellant (Stuart M. Lederman, of counsel and on the brief; Rudy Randazzo, on the brief).

          DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum, PC, attorneys for respondent (Sandra Belli, on the brief).

          Before Judges Fuentes, Vernoia and Moynihan.


          MOYNIHAN, J.A.D.

         Plaintiff Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. (Alcatel), [1] is the owner of real property in the Township of Berkeley Heights on which is located its North American headquarters. The Tax Court found there are approximately 1.5 million square feet of improvements on the 153.4 acre Berkeley Heights property - of which Alcatel contends 53 acres are woodlands - designated on the Township's tax map as block 3701, lot 1.[2] Alcatel appeals from that portion of the Tax Court's order, later confirmed as a final judgment, dismissing its complaint that challenged the Township's 2015 denial of a farmland assessment for the woodlands portion of the property because Alcatel failed to respond to a request sent by the Township's tax assessor pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-34. Following our de novo review, we affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Joshua D. Novin's cogent written opinion.

         N.J.S.A. 54:4-34[3] requires, in part, every real property owner, "on written request of the assessor . . . [to] render a full and true account of his name and real property and the income therefrom, in the case of income-producing property." The Township's tax assessor forwarded by certified mail, return receipt requested, a Chapter 91 request for income and expense data to:

Block: 3701 Lot: 1 4A

         It is undisputed that Alcatel received and did not respond to the Chapter 91 request. Fifty-four days after the Township sent the Chapter 91 request, LTI submitted an application for farmland assessment, a woodland data form and a Forest Management Plan to the assessor seeking an assessment for the 2015 tax year pursuant to the Farmland Assessment Act of 1964 (the Act), N.J.S.A. 54:4-23.1 to -23.23, for the woodland portion of the property. The assessor denied the application asserting the "[a]gricultural use is not [dominant] use."

         Judge Novin dismissed Alcatel's complaint challenging the denial pursuant to that portion of Chapter 91 that provides that if the property owner fails or refuses

to respond to the written request of the assessor within 45 days of such request . . . the assessor shall value his property at such amount as he may, from any information in his possession or available to him, reasonably determine to be the full and fair value thereof. No appeal shall be heard from the assessor's valuation and assessment with respect to income-producing property where the owner has failed or refused to respond to such written request.
[N.J.S.A. 54:4-34.]

         Alcatel contends the Tax Court erred in: extending the application of the Chapter 91 preclusion penalty to its farmland assessment appeal; applying the Chapter 91 preclusion penalty to the woodland property because it is not income producing; and formulating a new rule that misinterprets our prior holding and undermines the legislative purpose of Chapter 91 and the Act. It also argues that technical deficiencies in the Township's Chapter 91 request bar preclusion of its claim.[4]

         Although our review of a Tax Court decision is deferential, Estate of Taylor v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 422 N.J.Super. 336, 341 (App. Div. 2011), because "judges presiding in the Tax Court have special expertise," Glenpointe Assocs. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 241 N.J.Super. 37, 46 (App. Div. 1990), we review a Tax Court's legal determinations de novo, United Parcel Serv. Gen. Servs. Co. v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 430 N.J.Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 2013), aff'd, 220 N.J. 90 (2014). "Statutory interpretation involves the examination of legal issues and is, therefore, a question of law subject to de novo review." Saccone v. Bd. of Trs. of Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 219 N.J. 369, 380 (2014); see also Twp. of Holmdel v. N.J. Highway Auth., 190 N.J. 74, 86 (2007).

         Our goal in interpreting Chapter 91 and the Act, especially since they deal with "taxation or exemption therefrom," is to determine and effectuate the Legislature's intent. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., v. Twp. of Woodbridge, 73 N.J. 474, 478 (1977). "[T]he best approach to the meaning of a tax statute is to give to the words used by the Legislature 'their generally accepted meaning, unless another or different meaning is expressly indicated.'" Ibid. (quoting N.J. Power & Light Co. v. Twp. of Denville, 80 N.J.Super. 435, 440 (App. Div. 1963)). We seek "further guidance only to the extent that the ...

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