Top Court Sends Montclair State Back to Drawing Board Over New Campus Exit

Because plans would affect public safety, state Supreme Court returns case to Superior Court to make sure legitimate county concerns are taken into consideration

Credit: Montclair State University
Montclair State University
A public university generally does not need to get local planning board approval for development, but does have to get some OK when construction could impact safety, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a case involving Montclair State University’s effort to add a new campus exit.

The court decided that it is proper to put a check on the ability of a university to develop its own property, when that work could affect safety concerns outside campus property — in this case, traffic on Valley Road in Clifton, where Montclair State is seeking to add an exit to its steep and curving Yogi Berra Drive entrance.

“Where a facially legitimate public safety concern is raised about an immune entity’s planned improvement to lands, which would have a direct impact on non-state-owned property, we will require a showing by the immune entity that its planning has reasonably addressed the public safety concern,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. “We will require a discrete judicial finding that MSU’s proposed action reasonably satisfies public safety concerns … A judicial finding is necessary to properly protect the general public.”

Still, the court reaffirmed the principles first laid out in a 1972 decision involving Rutgers University, which state that a university or other “public corporation or authority created by the state to carry out a function of the state is not bound by local zoning regulations.” That immunity from review is not absolute but “qualified,” however, and a state university should consult with local officials about its plans and that they must be “reasonable.”

In this case, because Clifton and Passaic counties have “legitimate planning concern about public safety,” the court found that a Superior Court judge should weigh the university’s proposal against the municipal and county concerns and determine whether the road modifications should be allowed to go forward.

MSU plans back on hold

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The decision further postpones university plans that date back 14 years to try to improve traffic flow around the campus by adding a third exit. MSU submitted plans and consulted with city and county officials about the project for six years. Ultimately, university officials believed they had satisfied most concerns about the project. In April 2014, MSU submitted permit applications to Passaic County for the new exit, including a new driveway with or without a traffic light. Three months later, when the county did not respond, the university filed suit asking the court to order that the permits be issued or to rule that MSU, as a state university, did not need to get the permits.

Passaic County Superior Court Judge Thomas Brogan denied the university’s request and ordered MSU to go back to meeting with local officials and appear before the local planning boards. The university agreed to more modifications of its plans, but the county continued to maintain that the intersection would be unsafe and refused to issue any permits. When Brogan again refused an MSU request for approval to begin work, the university appealed. After the Appellate Division sent the case back to Brogan for a determination, Clifton sought action by the Supreme Court.

All sides consider the decision something of a victory.

Satisfying public safety concerns

“Montclair State University is pleased that the New Jersey Supreme Court substantially agreed with the result reached by the Appellate Division in this matter, and that the Supreme Court’s decision provides further instruction to the trial court as to the proper analysis to be applied in assessing the merits of the University’s roadway plan,” according to a statement from a university spokesman. “The University believes that its plan is inherently reasonable, that it consulted with and took into consideration the City’s and County’s concerns in making significant modifications to its plan, and, in the end, that the final proposed design reasonably satisfies public safety concerns regarding the intersection with the county road.”

Clifton continues to disagree and is pleased that Montclair State will have to justify its plan to the judge.

“The city is of the belief that it accomplished 100 percent of what it sought to do,” said Marvin Brauth, the attorney representing Clifton in the case. “We wanted to require Montclair State to prove at a hearing that this project is safe.”

Heavy commuter traffic

More than 21,000 students attend the university’s campus located on 252 acres spanning Montclair, Little Falls, and Clifton. It’s largely a commuter school, with just a quarter of students living on campus, so traffic can be problematic.

The court ruled that the university would not have to get any local approval to make changes to its own roadway system, holding that “MSU is an entity that clearly, in planning its alteration to its campus roads in order to better serve its intra-campus traffic, was acting in an immune capacity, pursuant to its statutory authorization to control its property.” But when its plans impact the public roads and public safety outside its campus in Clifton, the university cannot act unilaterally.

William Pascrell III, Passaic County counsel, said the county is not trying to impose rules on Montclair State regarding its own campus, but this is “a matter of safety and security.” He agreed it is proper to have a judge make the determination.

“Here there are potentially serious off-property effects,” Brauth agreed. He said the steep decline of the road and its sharp curve shortly before the intersection have the potential to create accidents on the county road onto which MSU wants to direct exiting vehicles. “That design is a recipe for accidents, as cars are not going to be able to stop, certainly not in any kind of bad weather, and could be pushed out into the intersection.”

The court sent the case back to Brogan or another Superior Court judge to consider the plans, traffic studies, and safety considerations from all sides and make a determination.