Legal experts abuzz about court's decision on Lower Makefield farm

Legal experts are abuzz about a recent state Supreme Court decision that requires Lower Makefield to pay a farmer’s family nearly $6 million for condemning his land to build a golf course.

What’s the big deal? A jury was allowed to consider how much money developers like Toll Brothers would have paid for the seized property.

Before May’s decision, offers to buy land were barred from the equation of valuing property, according to David Snyder, a lawyer with Fox Rothschild.

Snyder wrote on the firm’s eminent domain blog that the decision was a “dramatic change” in the law. The Supreme Court’s decision said “there is no bright-line rule prohibiting” genuine offers from developers when considering a property’s fair market value. 

In the Lower Makefield case, the township condemned Chester Dalgewicz’s 166-acre farm in 1996 to build a golf course. The farmer had been in talks with developers about selling his land during that decade’s housing boom.   

The township offered the family $3.3 million for the farm. An independent review board valued the land at about $4 million. But the Dalgewicz family took the case to trial, claiming the land was worth much more considering what developers were willing to pay.

A lower court judge allowed a jury to factor in Toll Brothers’ $7 million offer as well as an $8 million bid from Pulte Homes. The jury awarded Dalgewicz $5.85 million.

The township disputed the jury’s award, taking the case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which in late May upheld the consideration of the developers’ offers.  

“The township took this property knowing the Dalgewiczs were going to sell it to a developer,” said Marvin Wilenzik, the attorney who represented the family. “The township knew damn well that the Dalgewicz’s would make a hell of a lot more money for it if they sold it to a developer.”