Local land use lawsuits lining up- Freeholders in both Warren and Hunterdon ready to battle Highlands Act.

Monday, April 09, 2007

New Jersey - Legal action over the Highlands Act may be on the upswing.

The Warren County and Hunterdon County freeholders, a group of area landowners and a Morris County church all plan to file lawsuits over the state land use law in the next 30 days, officials said last week.

The upcoming lawsuits will change a trend of very few lawsuits since the Highlands Act was enacted almost three years ago.

Hundreds of landowners are angered at how the law restricts development rights. Many have been waiting until the regional land use plan is in place to consider legal action.

The plan will give landowners a better idea of how their land is restricted and their possible standing in court, officials said.

"The plan isn't ready yet so a lot of this isn't ripe for legal action," said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. The group has filed an appeal to the state's land use rules for the region but is holding off on a lawsuit until the plan is in place.

The Warren and Hunterdon freeholders have been waiting for the end of the plan's public comment period, Warren Freeholder Director Everett Chamberlain said. The two bodies have been planning a lawsuit over the Highlands Act since December 2004.

The public comment period, which has been extended four times, is now scheduled to end May 11.

"The county will probably do something shortly before or shortly after the comment period is over," Chamberlain said.

The Morris County church's lawsuit will come first. The church's lawsuit will be filed this week in federal court, attorney Gary Baise said.

He declined to name the church until the suit is filed.

Baise of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Kilpatrick Stockton is also retained by the Highlands landowners' group. The Highlands Conservation Association, a group of mainly Warren and Hunterdon landowners, plans to file a lawsuit in federal court by the end of the month, group President Devlen Mackey, a White Township farmer, said.

Kilpatrick Stockton is also handling the first lawsuit filed in federal court over the Highlands Act. The Phillipsburg Alliance Church sued over its denied use of 30 acres in Lopatcong Township for a new church. The suit, filed Jan. 10, claims the state violated the church's constitutional equal protection rights and its rights under the religious land use act.

The case will have its first court hearing May 8.

Other potential litigants are following the case.

"Hopefully they will take a chip off of it," Mackey said.

The state filed an answer to the church's lawsuit last month. It doesn't give much of a glimpse toward the state's defense strategy; it basically just denies all the church's allegations without any explanation.

Baise said the state's answer does shed some light on the case. In response to other lawsuits over the Highlands Act, the state has filed motions to dismiss instead of answers, he said.

"By filing an answer, they basically admit there's a claim," Baise said.

The state Attorney General's office, which is handling the suit, did not return a call for comment last week.

Reporter Lynn Olanoff can be reached at 908-475-8044 or by e-mail at lolanoff@express-times.com.


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