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Bailes v. Township of East Brunswick

A-2132-03T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005)

ZONING; ORDINANCES—Even though a zoning ordinance is entitled to a presumption of validity, a property owner may overcome this presumption by showing that the ordinance is clearly arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or plainly contrary to fundamental principles of zoning or the zoning statute, and the ultimate question is whether the ordinance’s requirements are reasonable under the circumstances.

A number of property owners in a municipality “challenge[d] the validity of zoning ordinances that downzoned the permitted densities in the district in which their properties [were] located from one unit per acre or per two acres to one unit per six acres, with cluster options ranging from one unit per three acres to one unit per three-and-half acres.” The municipality had experienced significant growth since World War II. Most of the municipality, especially where the properties in question were located, was “densely populated and built-out close to full capacity,” dominantly with single family residences. The particular district was designated as a rural preservation zone and was less densely developed than the rest of the municipality. Until 1999, the municipality “permitted residential and other development ... at substantially greater densities” than was permitted under the challenged ordinances. At first, the lower court “granted a preliminary injunction enjoining [the municipality] from enforcing [the 1999] ordinances.” In 2001, the municipality adopted two superceding ordinances that “retained the six-acre zoning adopted in 1999 but increased the densities permitted under a number of cluster options.” A great deal of testimony was taken over five days and then the lower court concluded “that the 2001 ordinances rezoning the area in which [the complaining owners’] properties [were] located [were] valid and dismissed” the complaints. It did not make any express credibility findings and failed to make “express findings regarding the factual issues addressed by the experts, such as the existence of environmental constraints on development or the economic feasibility of farming on [the complaining property owners’] properties.” The property owners appealed dismissal of their complaints.

On appeal, the Court concluded that, as applied to the particular properties, the district’s restriction of development to one unit per six acres [was] not required to serve the stated purposes of the ordinances and [did] not reasonably conform with the character of existing development in the area and [was] therefore arbitrary and unreasonable.” In reaching its conclusion, the Appellate Division needed to make “such findings of fact as [were] necessary to bring this litigation to a conclusion.”

“Under the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), ..., a zoning ordinance must be ‘drawn with reasonable consideration to the character of each district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses and to encourage the most appropriate use of land.’ ... In addition, the zoning must be ‘uniform throughout each district for each class or kind of buildings or other structures or uses of land.’” Even though a zoning ordinance is entitled to a “presumption of validity,” a property owner may overcome this presumption by showing that the ordinance is clearly arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or plainly contrary to fundamental principles of zoning or the [zoning] statute.” Ultimately, the question in any challenge to the validity of a zoning ordinance “is whether the requirements of the ordinance are reasonable under the circumstances.” The municipality argued that the 2001 zoning ordinances advanced “various purposes of the MLUL.” The Court, however, pointed out that “even if a zoning ordinance advances one or more purposes of the MLUL, the ordinance will be invalidated if the restrictions it imposes on the use of land are not ‘reasonably related to those purposes’ or ‘conflict[] with other purposes of the MLUL.” With that in mind, the Court concluded that the municipality had not shown that “the limitation of development to one unit per six acres or, where a cluster option may be utilized, one unit per three or three-and-half acres [was] required to serve the stated purposes of the 2001 zoning ordinance’s ... recognition of environmental constraints, retention of farmland and conservation of open space – at least as applied to [these particular] properties. [The Court] also conclude[d] that [the] severe downsizing of [these particular] properties did not reflect ‘reasonable consideration [of] the character ‘of the areas surrounding [these particular] properties and therefore violate[d] the MLUL.’”

The majority of the properties were “not located in areas served by public sewers,” but appeared to be suitable for septic tanks on one- or two-acre lots. Any evidence to the contrary put forth by the municipality during the lower court’s trial was insufficient to show that septic systems would not be suitable. Further, even though some of the properties were located “in areas of high aquifer recharge,” the record indicated “that the aquifer [could] be adequately protected by development on one-and two-acre lots.” The Court proceeded with an extensive analysis of all of the factors, almost on a lot by lot basis, finding, as a matter of fact, that the properties were developable without the downsizing that the ordinance would have called for and that the municipality had not given proper consideration to existing development in the area.

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