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Bunker Hill Homes, Inc. v. Township of Kingwood

HNT-L-674-09 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VESTED RIGHTS — A developer who argues that it has vested rights in project approvals is not obligated to exhaust its administrative remedies before filing a law suit because administrative exhaustion would be futile.

A builder owned ten building lots for which the local municipality granted final subdivision approval to allow a single family house development. After the builder finished two homes, it obtained well certifications for both. The municipality then adopted amendments to its well ordinance three times in the following two years. Subsequently, the builder applied for an additional well certification and sought a waiver or exemption from compliance with the new ordinance for the eight remaining lots. Its requests were denied. The builder then filed a five-count action against the municipality in lieu of prerogative writs.

The builder moved for partial summary judgment, claiming that the municipality could not impose the post-approval amendments on the remaining lots, arguing that it had vested rights and that the municipality should be equitably estopped from doing so. The Court determined that, because of the variety of facts bearing on reliance, a trial was required to determine when, if ever, the builder’s rights vested.

The municipality cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that the builder failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by not seeking relief from the amended well ordinance. The Court found that because the builder argued it had vested rights, it had no reason to complete the administrative process as a matter of law. Because administrative exhaustion would have been futile, the municipality’s motion was denied.

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