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Bruno v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of Borough of Oakland

A-3489-03T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

ZONING; ORDINANCE INTERPRETATION—When interpreting a zoning ordinance, a municipal zoning board has a duty to follow any express instructions regarding interpretation provided in the ordinance, such as a requirement that the zoning boundaries shown on the map are to be deemed correct.

A developer owned land within an industrial park where is sought to build a warehouse and office building. It applied to the municipality’s planning board for preliminary site plan approval and variances. At the public meeting held on the application, local property owners objected to the proposed development. They asserted that approval should be denied because part of the land was located within a residential zone. The planning board referred the matter to the municipality’s zoning board of adjustment to interpret the applicable zoning ordinance. That board reviewed the local zoning map which confirmed that a portion of the property was within a residential zone. It then heard testimony from several municipal officials who asserted that there was an error in the zoning boundaries on the map because the land at issue was supposed to be within an industrial zone. Thus, the zoning board concluded that despite the boundaries shown on the zoning map, the entire property was within the industrial zone. The property owners then contested the zoning board’s decision in the Law Division. The lower court held that the interpretation of the ordinance was a question of law, and therefore it had no obligation to defer to the zoning board’s decision. After reviewing the zoning ordinance, it held that the land in question was located in a residential zone. The municipality’s industrial park appealed asserting that the lower court’s decision was not supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling. In reaching its conclusion, it held that the interpretation of a zoning ordinance is primarily a question of law. As such, when reviewing a municipal zoning ordinance, a court is not required to give deference to a zoning board’s interpretation of an ordinance. The Court set forth many factors that a court may use to aid in its interpretation of an ordinance, such as legislative intent and the express provisions of the ordinance. It also found that the ordinance at issue contained an instructive provision setting forth the methods by which zone boundaries were to be determined and required that the zoning map used to find the zoning boundaries. According to the Court, a municipal zoning board must follow all express instructions in a zoning ordinance. Here, the zoning board completely disregarded those instructions by failing to take into account the boundaries provided for in the zoning map. For that reason, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s reversal of the zoning board’s determination.

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