Appellate Division Reverses DEP Decision Regarding Innocent PurchaserSeptember 22, 2017
The Appellate Division reversed a final agency decision by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) regarding who and what is defined as a “person” under the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act (“Brownfield Act”). Cedar Knolls 2006, LLC (“Cedar Knolls”) applied to the DEP to receive an innocent purchaser grant, which request was denied by DEP. DEP determined that Cedar Knolls did not qualify as a person under the Brownfield Act because of the way in which it acquired the property. The DEP denied the application stating that Cedar Knolls was not the same person who acquired the property prior to the 1983 date to become eligible for an innocent purchaser grant. Walter Higginson, who purchased the property in 1977, bequeathed the property upon his death to his wife through two different trusts. When those trusts terminated, the contents were transferred to their son and then to Cedar Knolls. Nine years after the transfer to Cedar Knolls, it applied for an innocent purchaser grant to assist with the clean-up of the contamination of the property.
The Appellate Division referred to the definition in the Industrial Site Recovery Act (“ISRA”) of a “change in ownership” finding that “although these definitional sections are not among the parts . . . that became the Brownfield Act, they nevertheless reflect the Legislature’s concerns with respect to changes of ownership at the time the innocent party grants were established.” ISRA provides that a “change in ownership” is not “a transfer where the transferor is the sibling, spouse, child, parent, grandparent, child of a sibling, or sibling of a parent of the transferee.” The Court found that, although Cedar Knolls is an LLC, because the transfers were made between family members that would not equate to a change in ownership, Cedar Knolls could qualify as a “person” under the Brownfield Act. The Court determined that the Legislature was more concerned with the “substance of ownership” and “continuity” rather than the precise legal form of the entity. Because this property was transferred within Mr. Higginson’s family and he would have otherwise qualified as an innocent purchaser, the Court reversed the DEP’s finding as to whether Cedar Knolls is a person to qualify as an innocent purchaser.