New Jersey Legislative UpdateMarch 1, 2016 – Articles In the Zone
Senate Bill 1126 proposes to create a “Land Use Court” made up of six to 12 judges who will have the power to hear and decide land use disputes throughout New Jersey. The bill statement likens the Land Use Court to the Tax Court. Appeals would be made to the Appellate Division.
Jurisdiction is sweeping and would extend to any land use decision of a state, county or municipal government, department or agency — including any land use approval that is required as a prerequisite for the issuance of a construction permit — and any dispute regarding the adoption or implementation of a county or municipal master plan or development regulation or the State Development and Redevelopment Plan. The bill provides the broad power to exercise jurisdiction in any action cognizable in the Superior Court, which raises issues where judicial expertise in matters involving land use is desirable. The bill expressly declares that the Land Use Court shall not have jurisdiction over Mount Laurel litigation pursuant to the Fair Housing Act.
The stated intent of the bill is to improve the quality and consistency of land use decisions and to enhance the fairness of process for the public, local governments and developers, and to minimize protracted litigation in the land use realm. The potentially positive impact would be efficient adjudication of land use matters by a specialized branch of the judiciary. Importantly, the bill directs the governor to take into account a potential judge’s “knowledge of the law governing land use and development and experience in these matters” when making appointments.
What remains unclear and unsettled is the procedural process for the court. Currently, appeals from local land use boards are governed by the court rules pertaining to actions in lieu of prerogative writs. Those rules provide for expedited disposition and individual case management outlining the scope of discovery. Whether these rules would be carried over or whether new procedural rules will be implemented remains to be seen. Also uncertain is whether matters involving land use claims and other causes of actions would be heard by the Land Use Court or whether the court would have concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court. If both the Superior Court and Land Use Court have the power to exercise jurisdiction over all claims, lawyers would be faced with a tactical decision when deciding where to file.
The bill was introduced only recently, on February 8, 2016, and has not yet been passed. However, it is a bill to watch as it may dramatically change land use litigation practice. A copy of the bill can be found on the New Jersey Legislature website at http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2016/Bills/S1500/1126_I1.PDF.