County of Morris v. Riverview Condominiums, Inc.

304 N.J. Super. 322, 700 A.2d 884 (App. Div. 1997)
  • Opinion Date: September 23, 1997

ZONING; MOUNT LAUREL—After six years, a “fair share” court order that was imposed to remedy exclusionary housing under Mount Laurel can be modified to meet changed conditions. With passage of the Fair Housing Act, the approach of the Mount Laurel cases may be antiquated.

In 1993, the County of Morris purchased a 16-acre tract of land from a developer as the location for a new county jail. As a condition to the granting of the necessary permits from the State, the County was required to demonstrate that this site, previously designated as land for inclusionary development to insure an adequate supply of low and moderate income housing, was no longer an inclusionary zoning site, as defined in Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Mount Laurel Township, 456 A.2d 390 (1983). The County sought a judgment validating its actions. The Township of Morris counterclaimed either: (a) to have the Court declare that the County could not build on this land because it was zoned for “fair share” development; or (b) for relief and indemnity from having to zone other parcels in the Township for “fair share” housing. Under the settlement reached in Mount Laurel, the Township must provide its “fair share” of the regional need for affordable housing. If any site zoned for that kind of development ceased to be available, the Township had to rezone sufficient other developable land. The trial court found in favor of the Township, holding that it substantially complied with its “fair share” obligations. The trial court also held that any future issues regarding affordable housing obligations would be transferred to the Council on Affordable Housing (“COAH”).

The Appellate Division concurred with the trial court’s finding that even though the Township did not discharge its “fair share” obligations, it did make a good faith attempt to comply with the Mount Laurel settlement. More importantly, the Court felt that Mount Laurel had already achieved its purpose and was now outliving its usefulness as a mechanism for determining what should be done to increase the availability of affordable housing. The Court concluded that the Mount Laurel judgment was a good one, but needed revision since a multitude of ever-changing factors must be considered when determining how much affordable housing is enough. Furthermore, the Mount Laurel judgment itself fixed the Township’s obligations for only six years, on the theory that fixing planning and zoning requirements and policies for longer is neither practical nor realistic. As for the transfer of affordable housing issues to COAH, the Court agreed with the legislature and the state Supreme Court that initial government responsibility for day-to-day implementation of public policies should lie with COAH, especially since its decision can be appealed to the judicial system. Additionally, the legislative intent behind enactment of the Fair Housing Act was “to bring an administrative agency into the field of lower income housing to satisfy the Mount Laurel obligations…second, to get the courts out of that field.” The Fair Housing Act, along with COAH’s power to enforce it, provides a consistent plan to provide for, and remedy disputes concerning, lower income housing. Finally, the Court stated that since Mount Laurel, there was a drastic reduction in New Jersey’s affordable housing needs, making the dictates of the Mount Laurel settlement even more antiquated.