NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited.
Petitioner Carol Ryle appeals from a final agency decision by the Department of Community Affairs (Department) denying her a grant from the Landlord Rental Repair Program (LRRP) under the Sandy Recovery Program. We affirm because the Department's decision was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable and because the decision was supported by substantial, credible evidence developed during a contested hearing at the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).
Petitioner and her husband own several properties, one of which they occupy and the others they rent. The home they occupy and one of their rental properties are located in Manahawkin and were damaged by Super Storm Sandy on October 29, 2012. The property at issue on this appeal is the rental property located in Manahawkin (the Property).
Petitioners represent that at the time Sandy struck, the Property was rented, albeit on an "informal month-to-month basis." After the storm, Petitioner and her husband oversaw repairs to the Property and, in April 2013, the tenant resumed occupancy of the Property. When the tenant moved back into the Property, however, petitioner knew that the Property still needed to be elevated.
In response to the damage caused by Sandy, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided funds to the Department for a variety of programs to assist affected New Jersey residents. Those funds came through community development block grants. The Department developed LRRP to restore residential rental properties damaged by Super Storm Sandy.
To be eligible for LRRP funds a number of requirements must be satisfied. The Department developed and issued a manual and guidelines that set forth the eligibility requirements and procedures governing the operation and administration of LRRP.
LRRP funds can be distributed to reimburse costs already incurred or for prospective rehabilitation costs to be incurred.
To be eligible for prospective rehabilitation costs, the LRRP guidelines state: "Landlords that apply to the LRRP and that have unit(s) occupied by a tenant with work not complete shall not be eligible for funding for the applicable unit(s)."
In August 2013, petitioner applied for funds from LRRP. At that time, petitioner represented that all storm-damage-repair work had been completed, the tenant had resumed occupancy, but the home still needed to be elevated. After submitting the initial application, petitioner met with representatives of the Department. The Department also sent a contractor to inspect the Property. The Department's contractor issued a report that estimated that just over $37,000 in work had been done at the Property and that just over $5000 in work remained to be done. The contractor also estimated that it would cost approximately an additional $47,000 to elevate the structure on the Property.
Following a long exchange of information and documentation, the Department sent petitioner a letter in June 2014, denying her application. In that letter, the Department explained that the application was denied because there was a tenant residing at the Property at the time of the application and the work was not complete.
Petitioner administratively appealed that determination. In November 2014, the Department denied her initial appeal stating that the application was ineligible because:
Petitioner then administratively appealed the November 2014 decision. The matter was transferred to the OAL and the Chief Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing. Petitioner and her husband appeared and presented testimony at the hearing. They also submitted numerous exhibits, including certifications from the tenant and a neighbor. The Department appeared and opposed petitioner's appeal.
After considering the evidence presented, the ALJ affirmed the Department's denial of petitioner's LRRP application in an initial decision issued on June 9, 2015. In that decision, the ALJ made fact-findings and conclusions of law based on the LRRP's eligibility guidelines and program manual. The ALJ found that while petitioner had fulfilled "many" of the eligibility factors, her application did not meet all of the necessary eligibility requirements. Specifically, the ALJ found that petitioner met "the basic eligibility criteria with regard to ownership, damage, year-round rental, and willingness to rent to households with low and moderate income." The ALJ, however, also found that petitioner had not shown that the repairs to the Property had been completed before the tenant reoccupied the Property in April 2013. In making that finding, the ALJ reasoned that although petitioner contested the completion issue, the LRRP guidelines required a certificate of occupancy and petitioner had failed to present such a certificate covering the time that the tenant reoccupied the Property in April 2013.
In addition, the ALJ found that the repairs to the Property were not complete because the structure on the Property still needed to be elevated. The elevation work, however, would require displacement of the tenant in contravention to the LRRP's guidelines.
Petitioner submitted exceptions to the initial decision, but the ALJ's initial decision became final on July 24, 2015, when the Department did not adopt, modify, or reject the initial decision.
Petitioner now appeals the final agency decision. On this appeal, petitioner makes two arguments. First, she contends that it was an error to reject her application for failure to provide a certificate of occupancy. Second, she contends that the temporary relocation of a tenant for elevating a structure is allowed under the LRRP.
Our role in reviewing an administrative agency's final decision is limited.
Petitioner takes issue with the Department's reliance on the requirement for a certificate of occupancy to establish completion of repairs. In particular, petitioner argues that the local municipality did not require a certificate of occupancy for the tenant to resume use of the Property in April 2013. The ALJ, however, reasoned that the State Uniform Construction Code provides: "It shall be unlawful to change the use of any structure or portion thereof without the prior application for and issuance of a certificate of occupancy as herein provided."
Applying our deferential standard of review, we discern no basis to disagree with the ALJ's interpretation of the guidelines, as adopted by the Department. Moreover, we note that the question of whether the repair work had been completed prior to the tenancy was a disputed issue before the ALJ. The ALJ never found that petitioner proved that the repair work had been completed and that the only thing that was missing was the certificate of occupancy.
Next, the petitioner contends that she was eligible for funds to elevate the structure on the Property even if that elevation required the temporary relocation of the tenant. The Department rejected that position reasoning that the LRRP guidelines do not allow funds if the resulting work will displace existing tenants. In that regard, the LRRP guidelines state: "Landlords who apply to the LRRP and have damaged units (defined as work not completed at the time of the applicable submission) that are occupied by a tenant shall not be eligible for funding."
Having considered the fact-findings made by the Department and applying our limited scope of review, we discern no basis for disturbing the Department's fact-findings and conclusions related to the elevation of the Property.