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Families Opposed to Unreasonable Land Use v. Millstone Township

A-7429-97T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)

ZONING; CONFLICTS OF INTEREST—A prior interest in the outcome of a municipal zoning ordinance vote does not disqualify a municipal committee member from voting if there is no interest when the vote is taken.

A group of municipal residents appealed a dismissal of its suit contesting adoption of a municipal ordinance permitting “field lighting” as an accessory use to the permitted use of “ball fields.” Initially, a Little League applied to the municipal planning board for site plan approval and a variance to install ball field lighting. Then, in response to a request for an interpretation, the municipality’s zoning board of adjustment concluded that the proposed ball field lighting standards were not permitted as of right and that the application would have to be heard before it, rather than before the planning board. About two months later, the municipality adopted an ordinance to amend the zoning ordinance to (among other things) make field lighting a permitted accessory use. One of the five municipal committee members did not vote on the ordinance because he had been a founder of the Little League. The other four unanimously adopted the ordinance. The complaining residents argued that one of those four remaining municipal officials should have been disqualified from participating in the vote because of a conflict of interest. The record showed that although that the member had made contributions to the Little League in prior years, his last monetary contribution to the Little League was made three years before first assuming public office. Further, although his son participated in Little League, that participation ended two and one-half years before he was first elected to public office. Consequently, his son would never be a beneficiary of playing under the lights. In the year before the vote, he was observed at the Little League concession stand two times, but that participation was as part of his community activities. He never belonged to the Little League organization. He never sat on the Little League Board. In fact, he never acted as a coach, although he coached other non-other Little League sports. Three restaurants of which he was a co-owner supplied food for Little League ceremonies until the year before he was elected, and also supplied some concession stand equipment, but those restaurants never wrote a check to the Little League and the municipal official’s name never appeared on any signs. To the Court, this history was critical because although the individual in question might have had an interest in earlier years, it was determined that he did not have an interest when voting on the ordinance in question. Consequently, when voting, he did not violate the Local Government Ethics Law because neither he, nor any member of his immediate family, nor any business organization in which he had an interest, had a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment at the time of his vote.


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