In Malanga v. Township of West Orange (A-45-21/086087) (Decided March 13, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the Township of West Orange improperly designated the site of the West Orange Public Library as an area in need of redevelopment under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL).
Facts of Malanga v. Township of West Orange
The case centers on whether the West Orange Public Library — which attracted tens of thousands of visitors and was used more than 150,000 times a year — qualified as an area in need of redevelopment. Under the LRHL, property that (1) suffers from “obsolescence,” “faulty arrangement,” or “obsolete layout,” and, (2) as a result, is “detrimental to the…welfare of the community” can be found “to be in need of redevelopment.”
In this case, the Planning Board hired a consulting firm to evaluate the Library. The firm concluded the Library met both statutory conditions listed above. The Board, in turn, adopted that conclusion and recommended the site of the Library be designated an area in need of redevelopment. The Township Council agreed.
Plaintiff Kevin Malanga, who lives in West Orange, filed a lawsuit to challenge the designation. The trial court rejected Malanga’s claims, noting the designation was entitled to a presumption of validity and was clearly supported by substantial credible evidence. The Appellate Division credited the trial court’s analysis and affirmed substantially for the reasons in the court’s written decision.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in Malanga v. Township of West Orange
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “We find that the Township’s designation was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Like many older buildings, the Library needed improvements in a number of areas,” the court wrote. “But the record did not establish that it suffered from obsolescence, faulty arrangement, or obsolete layout in a way that harmed the welfare of the community.”
In its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that a town’s designation of an area as in need of redevelopment is entitled to deference provided it is supported by substantial evidence on the record. It went on to note that N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5(d), which the Township relied on to make its designation, is stricter than other provisions of the LRHL. First, it does not ask whether property could potentially be more useful or valuable; it requires proof of a current problem, such as “dilapidation,” “obsolescence,” or “overcrowding.” Second, subsection (d) does not presume harm; it requires a showing of actual detriment.
The New Jersey Supreme Court first concluded that the record lacked substantial evidence the Library suffered from “obsolescence.” In support, it noted that the Library was still a functioning building. It also emphasized that the fact that an older building needs repair work does not necessarily mean it is out of date or obsolete.
The New Jersey Supreme Court next determined that whether there was sufficient proof of “faulty arrangement” or an “obsolete layout” was a “close question.” However, it went on to find that, even if the evidence on that point was considered substantial, the record would still have to establish that, as a result of either condition, the Library site was “detrimental to the . . . welfare of the community.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately found that the record lacked substantial evidence that the conditions of the Library were detrimental to the community’s welfare. “No one can quarrel with the general point that additional computers and programming at the Library could serve the community better. But that does not demonstrate that the building was causing actual harm, as the statute requires,” the court wrote. The New Jersey Supreme Court similarly found that needed repair work did not necessarily establish actual harm. As noted by the court, the Township promptly repaired the brick facade that collapsed in 2015, and the record contains no evidence the problem was likely to recur. Similarly, HGA’s consultant acknowledged the Library was safe to visit despite the presence of capped asbestos.