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Montclair State Case, Testing State vs. Local Authority, Goes to Supreme Court

[caption id="attachment_4830" align="alignnone" width="620"] Montclair State University[/caption] In a case lodged by Montclair State University over plans for a road construction project, the New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to take up the issue of how closely state and local government entities must coordinate on such undertakings. The court granted a petition for certification in Montclair State University v. County of Passaic, an action lodged by the university after it failed to come to a consensus with local authorities over its proposed project. In its petition, the city of Clifton, seeking ultimately to overturn a precedential Appellate Division ruling in the case from earlier this year, argued that the decision, if left to stand, would allow a state agency "to proceed even with a manifestly unsafe or unreasonable project, over legitimate local concerns and objections, as long as the state agency sits down with the local agency and discusses the local objections but then ignores them." "That is precisely what occurred in the case before the court," the city said. According to documents, in 2014, Montclair State undertook to construct a road that would intersect with Valley Road in Clifton. More than 20,000 students attend Montclair State, which is located in a densely populated portion of Essex County abutting Passaic County. There are a large number of students who reside on campus, but there also is a sizable group of students who commute on a daily basis. Locally, safety concerns were raised. After going back and forth with the city and Passaic County, which resulted in no consensus and no permit being issued, the university filed an action seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the university had failed to properly appear before the city’s planning board. The university appealed. Last August, Appellate Division Judges Garry Rothstadt, Ellen Koblitz and Thomas Sumners Jr. reversed. The panel relied largely on the state Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Rutgers v. Piluso. There, the court ruled that state colleges and universities, as quasi-state entities, generally are not obligated to obtain permission from local planning boards before embarking on improvement projects. But Rutgers does require those institutions to at least make efforts to reach out to local planning boards and “sympathetically listen” in an effort to reach some consensus. The court remanded the matter for the trial court to determine whether Montclair State had met its obligation to account for local government concerns, as Rutgers requires. “The determination of whether a state university has complied with its obligation to consult and consider local concerns is a judicial function not conditioned upon consideration by local zoning boards,” Rothstadt said. “We observe that the records contains substantial evidence of the parties’ efforts to identify and address local concerns over many years, which the trial judge may solely rely upon in his discretion in determining whether MSU satisfied its duty to consider those concerns." Clifton's petition for certification, dated Sept. 20 and filed by Marvin Brauth of Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, said Rutgers requires that a state agency must demonstrate that a proposed project is "not unreasonable," and must hear out local objections. The Appellate Division "ignored the first of these two requirements and, if followed, its decision will eviscerate the rule established in Rutgers," Brauth wrote. In an order dated Nov. 29 and posted Dec. 1, the court granted the petition. Montclair State's attorney, Antonio Casas of the Madison office of Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf, deferred comment to the university, which, through a spokesperson, said: "The university is pleased to have the highest court in the state hear this issue, and we're confident that they'll agree with the appellate division." Brauth declined to comment. Passaic County is represented by Assistant County Counsel Michal Glovin. He didn't return a call seeking comment.

Montclair State University