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Borough of Ridgefield v. Borough of Ridgefield Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-5045-07T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING; MUNICIPALITIES; STANDING —For a municipality to have standing to challenge a zoning board’s grant of a variance, it needs to show that the proposed use would substantially alter the character of its zoning plan.

A developer proposed to build an eighty-five unit, seven floor, 55 year and older age-restricted residential complex with a multi-level underground parking garage on an undeveloped parcel of land. The parcel fronted a primarily residential street and its rear touched upon a primarily commercial street. The parcel was in an Office Low-Rise Zone District. The lot sloped downward and this generally deterred development. The developer’s plan addressed the unique topography making it skew to the residential street’s design and appear, when viewed, like a smaller four-story structure. Twenty percent of the units were to be devoted to low and moderate income residents, complying with standards established by the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).

The parcel’s zone specifically prohibited structures over thirty-five feet high or those devoted to residential use. The developer sought a height variance and a use variance from the municipality’s board of adjustment. Public hearings were held on three dates. The developer’s engineer testified the proposed structure was suited to the unusual lot, and its ample on-site parking would ease any anticipated increase in parking or traffic. Its architect testified the development would satisfy a critical planning need for age-restricted senior housing, which was an inherently beneficial use, and that the property’s topography was well suited for this building but ill-suited for office complexes generally. Also, the development would transform a longstanding vacant parcel into a much needed community use. The architect further testified there would no impact on traffic volume, drainage, aesthetics or visibility, and the building would appear as only a four story structure on the residential street side. A fire protection engineer told of the fire-resistant garage construction and its proposed fire safety suppression and alarm systems. Finally, the municipality’s planner testified the site was well-suited for the proposed project, as it was well-adapted to the physical hardships of the property. The planner also agreed that senior citizen housing was an inherently beneficial use as defined under the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). The planner further testified the project would not spur surrounding property owners to seek zoning changes because the residential street was close to the character of the proposed development, and the commercial street was already heavily developed with non-residential buildings.

The board approved the application and granted the variances. The municipality filed a complaint contending the board had usurped the municipality’s zoning authority by transcending its variance authority. The lower court ruled that the municipality lacked standing to pursue its action because, as the record indicated, the board had not imposed its own view as to the most appropriate use for a particular portion of a municipality. Also, there was no evidence the granted variances created a substantial impairment of the zoning plan.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the proposed development was consistent with the residential area on one street and the use was inherently beneficial. It held the use variance was reconciled with the zoning plan because the topography allowed the development to appear only four stories high. The Court said the municipality offered nothing to show how the proposed use would substantially alter the character of the zone plan and this was a requirement to grant it standing under law.

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