Coming to you from Virginia – care of our Owner’s Counsel colleague Robert Thomas – is the case of Ramsey v. Commissioner of Highways, which involves Virginia DOT’s attempt to change its valuation position at trial. Thomas’ Blog entry here.  In a nutshell, DOT offered the owner $246,292 before trial (based on an appraisal prepared by Mr. Savage), but by the time of trial, Savage had retired and the State proffered a new appraiser who opined that the property was only worth $92,127.  It appears that the trial court condoned the practice, and also precluded the owner from introducing the Savage appraisal at trial on the basis that the initial offer was a non-admissible settlement offer.  The jury awarded $234,032.00 and the property owners’ appealed.

The owners argue on appeal that under Virginia law, the initial offer is jurisdictional and must be considered by the jury in the condemnation valuation proceedings.

The case is now pending before the Virginia Supreme Court.

The good news for Virginia property owners is that New Jersey law provides a yuletide blessing in the form of a case right on point. State v. Fairweather, 298 N.J. Super. 421 (App. Div. 1997).  In that case, the State initially offered $23,000 for the taking, but at the time of trial, offered evidence that the property was only worth $21,000 (the State’s original appraiser had died before trial).  The property owner appealed the verdict complaining of, inter alia, the court permitting evidence of value at less than the State’s original jurisdictional offer.  The Appellate Court agreed.  “Although it is clear that the offers themselves are not evidential under the statute, judicial estoppel prevents the State from taking a different position at trial concerning the value of the property from that which it had assumed when it made its offers and deposited with the court clerk what it considered to be the property’s fair market value.”  (at 425).  The New Jersey courts routinely and consistency apply Fairweather to prevent a condemnor from engaging in such litigation tactics clearly designed to reduce a property owner’s constitutional just compensation.

Hopefully, the Virginia Supreme Court will do the same, and reaffirm what we all know to be true:  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Almost twenty years ago, a new neighbor moved in across from Sophie Bubis’ house at 1 Ocean Place in Loch Arbour.  At that time, in 1995, the new neighbors, Jack and Joyce Kassin bought the entire beachfront lot consisting of four + acres.  Soon thereafter, the Kassins erected an eight foot high sand berm covered with bushes and trees reaching heights of eighteen feet in some areas.  All of a sudden, Sophie Bubis could no longer see the ocean.

So, what did Sophie Bubis do? She sued the Kassins to enforce a local zoning ordinance restricting fences heights and a restrictive covenant in the Kassin’s title that restricted the height of fences to four feet.  And ten years later, the New Jersey Supreme Court said that Sophie Bubis was right. Bubis v. Kassin, 184 N.J. 612 (2005).  (The outcome of the case fell on whether the sand berm/dune was – in fact – a “fence.”)

The Kassins had to remove the berm and trees and comply with the local fence ordinance.

Six years later both properties were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. But Sophie Bubis has no regrets.  As recounted in an article by nj.com:  “Despite the destruction that Sandy wrought, Bubis said she has “not an ounce of regret” about her legal battle to remove the barrier.”  The article also notes that even if the berm were in place at the time of the storm, it would have been overtopped and Bubis’ house would have been destroyed.  LIkewise, the Kassin’s property was severely damaged by Sandy.

And perhaps, in a twist of fate, the bulk of the Kassin’s property was later conveyed to the Village of Loch Arbour by way of settlement in lieu of eminent domain.

Sophie Bubis waged a ten-year legal battle to preserve one of the most important aspects of ownership of shoreline property; an ocean view.  And even after having her house destroyed by Mother Nature, she did not regret having waged a ten-year legal battle to maintain her ocean view.  And why would she?  In real estate it’s all about location.  You can always build a new house, but you can’t get a better location to see the ocean.

So when the State comes along to erect an 18-25 high sand dune on your neighbors’ property, don’t be surprised if they expect to be compensated for their loss in value as required by our State and federal Constitutions.

Updating our recent entry on the Property Reserve case (here), the California Supreme Court has decided to review the Appellate Court’s finding that the Water Resource Board’s preliminary entry constituted a taking under California’s law of the eminent domain.  The appellate court ruling meant that the State was going to have to pay just compensation to thousands of property owners in order to conduct invasive preliminary testing on the viability of a tunnel to transport fresh water from Northern California to the arid South.  The California Supreme Court limited review to the following questions:

(1) Do the geological testing activities proposed by the Department of Water Resources constitute a taking? (2) Do the environmental testing activities set forth in the February 22, 2011, entry order constitute a taking? (3) If so, do the precondemnation entry statutes (Code Civ. Proc., §§ 1245.010-1245.060) provide a constitutionally valid eminent domain proceeding for the taking?

Full text of the Order is available here.

Looking forward to the briefs and decision.

As reported by the Washington Post here, a bill that would have increased the annual “tax credit” budget for production companies filming in Maryland (like Netflix’s House of Cards and HBO’s Veep) from $15M to $18.5M failed to pass last week in Maryland’s General Assembly. House of Cards Cast(2) The fate of House of Cards filming in Maryland remains uncertain, but there was no talk of eminent domain this time around (maybe the Legislators figured out that if they took “House of Cards” they would actually have to pay just compensation for what they took.  That might just break the budget). Our prior blog on topic is here.

On March 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its almost unanimous (8-1) decision in Brandt Revocable Trust v United States.  The question presented is detailed in our prior blog here, but simply stated, the government argued that it owned the ground underneath an abandoned railroad right-of-way that permitted it to continue the Medicine Bow Rail-Trail across private property owned by Brandt without payment of just compensation.

The core question was whether the 1875 Railroad Right of Way Act granted easements or limited fee interests to railroad companies to spur America’s growth west-ward.  The answer, disappointing to rails to trails advocates, was that the original grant was only an easement.  Therefore when the railroad right-of-way was abandoned, the underlying land returned to the fee owner, here Brandt.  Thus, in order to reopen that portion of the Medicine Bow Rail-Trail, the government would have to utilize its eminent domain power to acquire the private property along with the constitutional duty to pay just compensation.

It will be interesting to see whether the government actually condemns private property to create new trails and/or legitimize existing trails, or whether property owners will claim that creation of a trail was a temporary taking requiring payment of compensation.

More information about this case is available on the Inverse Condemnation Blog by our Owners’ Counsel of America colleague, Robert Thomas, who submitted an amicus curiae brief in the Brandt matter.

Hudson County Assignment Judge Peter Bariso recently rejected a property owner’s argument that the date of value should be a date earlier than the commencement of condemnation action on August 23, 2012.  City of Hoboken v. Ponte Equities, Inc. (Docket No. HUD-L-4095-12).  The property owner argued that the date of value should have been June 11, 2008, the date the City of Hoboken allegedly took action that substantially affected the owners’ use and enjoyment of the property consistent with N.J.S.A. 20:3-30, which requires the court to set the date of value as the “earliest” of four possible dates.  On that date, the City introduced an ordinance(Dr-366), and adopted two resolutions.  That ordinance recommended rezoning certain properties to open and recreational space, including Ponte’s property.  Dr-366 was never adopted.

Resolution 08-206 was a “Resolution Supporting Acquisition of Block 11 for Open Space,” and recommended that the zoning board of adjustment post-pone all pending variance applications for properties within Block 11 or identified in Ordinance Dr-366.

Resolution 08-207 authorized retention of an appraiser to value several properties to be used in support of a future City application to obtain Open Space Trust Funds to acquire the properties appraised, including Ponte’s.  The City’s 2009 appraisal valued the Ponte property at $10,070,000 for residential development.

On March 16, 2011, the City adopted the 2010 Master-Plan Re-Examination Report, which recommended park use for the subject.  The City re-appraised the subject in 2011 at $2,350,000 for continued use as a public parking lot.   The City offered Ponte this amount to acquire the property.  Upon rejection a condemnation complaint was filed on August 23, 2012.

Ultimately a bench trial was held in January of 2014 to determine the appropriate date of value.  The owner presented two expert witnesses; a professional planner and an appraiser.  The court was critical of the planner because he did not provide any factual support for his opinion that a variance application to build residential on the subject property as of the date of complaint (2012) was any less likely than as of the earlier date (2008).  The court also criticized the appraiser for failing to bring any examples of variance denials after the June 2008 municipal actions, and also for failing to offer an opinion on whether the municipal action affected the property value other than to generally agree with the City’s appraisal valuation for residential ($10M) and parking ($2.3M).

Without recounting the entirety of the opinion, the Court found the lack of factual foundation for the experts’ opinions fatal.   Since the planners and the appraisers “testimony lacked any factual basis, they constitute net opinions for failing to meet the threshold requirements of N.J.R.E. 702 and N.J.R.E. 703. Consequently, Hoboken’s motion in limine to exclude Ponte’s experts’ testimony is granted. As a result, Ponte has failed to offer sufficient evidence to find June 11, 2008 as the appropriate valuation date pursuant to N.J.S.A. 20:3-30(c).” [Slip op. at 27].

The apparent lack of factual support for the property owner’s contentions might ultimately assist in determining just compensation because there is an argument that a buyer and seller would take into consideration the probability of a variance to build residential as of the date of the commencement of the action.

A copy of the court’s opinion in this matter is available here.

While not our prototypical condemnation case, a trial judge in Ocean County aptly reversed a local zoning board in Jerman v. Tp. of Manchester (Docket No. OCN-L-1844-13).  If affirmed the zoning board’s denial of a bulk variance that would have zoned the property into inutility; that is, it would have rendered the property valueless and would thereby give rise to a claim for an unconstitutional taking of private property without payment of just compensation.

Jerman applied to the zoning board for a variance to construct a single-family residence on an undersized lot.  Before applying, Jerman unsuccessfully attempted to purchase portions of neighboring lots to cure the bulk deficiency and offered to sell the lot to the neighbors.  Hence, all other criteria having been satisfied, the bulk variance should have been granted.  Had the judge on appeal not reversed the decision, the property owner could have filed suit against the municipality for a taking, i.e. an inverse condemnation action.

The municipality should be thanking the judge for saving it the time and expense of defending the inverse, which it was bound to lose.  And in that event, the municipality would have been on the hook for all of the property owners’ expenses, including attorneys’ fees.

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