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Aubrey v. Deptford Township Planning Board

A-6149-05T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING; ORDINANCES; INTERPRETATION —Courts are not required to give deference to a land use board’s interpretation of ordinances because that is a judicial function, and as such, ordinances should be interpreted under a de novo standard.

A developer was ultimately granted preliminary and final site plan approval for a commercial project by a municipal planning board after two previous denials which involved the adoption of a land use ordinance during the application’s pendancy. In litigation, an ordinance was held to be unconstitutional as applied to the developer’s application. An objector subsequently filed a complaint seeking to void the preliminary and final site plan approvals. The lower court concluded that the objector had not met his burden of proving that the board’s decision was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. It also found that even if it had not given weight to the previous matter’s findings under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the same decision would have resulted if it gave no weight to any previous ruling. The objector appealed.

The Appellate Division set forth the standard of review of a board’s actions. It stated that the deferential standard applies to factual issues and, as such factual determinations by a board are presumed to be valid, and this board’s exercise of its authority based on the facts before the Court were sustainable absent a showing that the board’s actions were arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. The standard of review differs when the issue is one of ordinance interpretation because that is a judicial function, and as such, should be reviewed under a de novo standard. The Court further clarified that it would generally defer to a municipality’s informal interpretation of its ordinances because of the municipality’s knowledge of local conditions. Here, it concluded that the lower court properly applied the deferential standard of review in determining that the board was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable in reviewing the application. The Court also stated that even if a de novo standard had been applied, the application still conformed to the ordinance and the project did not require any variances or waivers under the ordinance. Thus, the Court affirmed the decision of the lower court.

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