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247 Manila Avenue, LLC v. Jersey City Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-6226-08T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING — When reviewing a zoning map, one needs to be careful to distinguish between designations that refer solely to the use of the property at the time the map was created, and those that designate the underlying zoning districts and permitted uses.

Two related limited liability companies acquired property previously owned by a railroad. Both properties contained sections of an embankment that had been constructed to provide rail access to a municipality’s waterfront. Each property was subject to a specific municipal redevelopment plan which allowed residential use. Several years after the acquisitions, a redevelopment study recommended that both properties be made part of a third redevelopment plan area. The municipal planning board endorsed the study’s findings that suggested that the embankments be replaced with a use more compatible with the character of the neighborhood. The report was presented to the municipal council. It passed a resolution finding the study area to be in need of development. However, the council never enacted an ordinance adopting a redevelopment plan for the study area.

At some time after this resolution was adopted, the companies asked the municipal zoning officer for a zoning opinion for the properties. A zoning official replied that both parcels were zoned for residential use, because the redevelopment plans were silent as to the reuse of the former railroad bed. One company then filed an application for approval to build residential homes . The municipality reacted by responding that the earlier ruling was incorrect and that redevelopment plans designated the properties at issue for “railroad use.” The municipality’s assertion, which applied to both properties, was affirmed by the zoning board.

In response, the companies filed a complaint appealing the board’s decision. The lower court found that the railroad designation for use on the zoning maps that were attached to the redevelopment plans referred solely to the use of the property at the time the map was created, and the designation did not affect underlying zone locations. These were zoned for residential use. The court concluded that both properties were located in residential zones, and residential development would be consistent with existing redevelopment plans. The court further concluded the board erred in determining the properties were zoned exclusively for railroad use. Thus, it reversed the board’s decision.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, finding that the railroad use designation only appeared in the text of one redevelopment plan. Additionally, the Court said that railroad use was not a generally used zoning category, and was not included in this municipal’s general zoning ordinance. The Court considered it to be significant that the municipal planning board’s resolution adopting the study area findings indicated the area was essentially zoned for residential use, and that the redevelopment plans did not change the residential zoning of the properties. In sum, the Court concluded that residential use was fully consistent with the objectives of both redevelopment plans and with the actual uses in the surrounding area.

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