A public university need not obtain permission from local authorities for traffic improvement plans, but those plans must be reviewed by a judge in consideration of local safety concerns, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a unanimous decision in Montclair State University v. Passaic, the court modified its 1972 ruling in Rutgers v. Piluso, in which the court said public universities generally are exempt from local traffic laws.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, writing for the court, said Montclair is relieved of any obligation to further attempt to coordinate traffic improvement plans on an access road adjacent to neighboring Clifton Township and Passaic County.
However, the court added a caveat: There must be a hearing before a judge to determine whether the university took steps to account for local concerns.
“A judicial finding is necessary to properly protect the general public and to fairly provide an independent judicial determination on which other public entities may rely,” LaVecchia said.
At the same time, the court said, “MSU enjoys the qualified immunity from local land use controls recognized in Rutgers.”
The court’s ruling largely affirms an Appellate Division decision from last year in the case, which arose from Montclair State’s efforts to install traffic controls on Valley Road in Clifton, which runs alongside the university and provides several access points to the campus.
More than 20,000 students attend Montclair State, which is located in a densely populated portion of Essex County abutting Passaic County. Many students reside on campus, but there also is a sizable group of students who commute on a daily basis.
Montclair State proposed the traffic controls on Valley Road in 2014, primarily in an effort to reduce traffic speed on the heavily used road. After going back and forth with Clifton Township and Passaic County, which resulted in no consensus and a lack of approval, the university filed a lawsuit seeking permission to impose the changes without township or county approval.
A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the university had failed to properly appear before the township’s planning board. Appellate Division Judge Garry Rothstadt, joined by Judges Ellen Koblitz and Thomas Sumners Jr., reversed, relying largely on Rutgers. There, the court ruled that state colleges and universities, because of their nature as quasi-state entities, generally are not obligated to obtain permission from local planning boards before embarking on improvement projects.
On Monday, LaVecchia said a trial judge’s review is necessary, but does not have to be a lengthy affair.
“We do not suggest that protracted trial proceedings are necessary whenever a public safety claim is advanced as a reason for questioning immunity from local land use regulations,” LaVecchia said.
Passaic County Counsel William Pascrell III said he was pleased with the ruling.
“This will give us the chance to have our legitimate safety concerns addressed,” Pascrell said.
Montclair State was represented by Antonio Casas, of the Madison office of Windels Marx Lane Mittendorf.
The city of Clifton retained Marvin Brauth of Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer.
Casas and Brauth didn’t return calls about the ruling.
The university issued a statement through a spokeswoman, Erica Bleiberg:
Montclair State University is pleased that the [court] substantially agreed with the result reached by the Appellate Division in this matter, and that the … 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,” she said. ”
“ 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.”