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Ashforth v. The Planning Board of the Town of Westfield

A-4684-04T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES—A c(2) variance may be granted only if granting the variance serves the surrounding community and does not focus on relaxing the requirements for any particular land owner.

For investment purposes, homeowners purchased a vacant lot immediately adjacent to the lot on which their home was built. The two lots were merged into one lot, and the homeowners understood that if they ever wanted to sell either of the original lots, they would need planning board subdivision approval. The homeowners’ combined lot satisfied zoning requirements; but each original lot would be nonconforming. Later, the homeowners applied to the planning board to subdivide their lot into two nonconforming lots. The planning board denied the subdivision request.

A variance application pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c)1 may be approved only if a planning board finds that the property in question has unique or exceptional characteristics. The homeowners’ lot was the same rectangular shape and size as all other lots in the neighborhood. To qualify for a hardship exception under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c)1, the hardship must stem from the unique condition of the property. The fact that the homeowners purchased the lot for investment purposes and now needed a variance for their planned subdivision did not amount to a hardship on the land.

A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c)2 may only be granted if granting the variance serves the surrounding community. The focus under a “(c)2” analysis is whether granting the variance request presents an opportunity for improved community zoning and planning. The analysis does not focus on relaxing the requirements for any particular land owner. Prior to this subdivision application, several changes to the zoning ordinance were adopted to preserve large lots and to discourage more intense use of the land. The homeowners’ application ran contrary to this intent and, if approved, would have created smaller lots with more intense use of the land.

On appeal, the Court found that the planning board properly set forth its factual findings on the record. According to the Court, it strongly supported the board’s findings. The record was more than sufficient to indicate that the decision of the Planning Board was neither arbitrary, capricious nor unreasonable. Consequently, it affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the homeowner’s complaint.

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