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F&E Realty v. Borough of Morris Plains Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-3620-07T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

ZONING — When reviewing a decision of a land use board, a court’s mandate is to determine whether the board acted within the statutory guidelines and properly exercised its discretion, basically meaning that the court looks to see if the board could reasonably have reached its decision.

An applicant for variances from a zoning board owned an oversized corner lot located in a municipality’s C-1 commercial zone bordering the municipality’s R-4 residential zone. The property had a driveway opening from a state highway at a fixed location that could not changed due to requirements imposed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The applicant sought “to construct two principal buildings, a gas station with a repair garage and a separate convenience store on the property. While a gas station, repair garage, and convenience store [were] all permitted uses in a C-1 zone, only one building for these uses [was] permitted on the lot under the zoning ordinance.” Therefore, a variance to construct two buildings was needed. Further, other variances were needed for completion of the project.

At a lengthy, multi-day zoning board hearing, a neighboring gas station owner opposed the application. The neighbor presented testimony from its experts and the zoning board also received input from its own professional engineer and professional planner. At the conclusion of the hearing, the board approved the application subject to various conditions. The neighbor appealed, but the lower court affirmed the zoning board’s decision. Then, the neighbor appealed further.

The neighbor’s argument before the Appellate Division was that the record did not support the grant of seven particular variances. The Court was supportive of the expertise and special knowledge of the municipal zoning board, pointing out that such a board “is entrusted with the sound discretion to determine whether an applicant has met the statutory criteria to obtain a variance.” Further, it held that the law recognizes that “local officials are ‘thoroughly familiar with their community’s characteristics and interests’ and are best suited to make judgments concerning local zoning regulations.” The Appellate Division applied to same standard as did the lower court. Each of the courts set about to “determine whether or not the [zoning] board acted within the statutory guidelines and properly exercised its discretion.” Unwilling to substitute its own judgment for the zoning board, it only looked to see if the board “could reasonably have reached its decision.” On the record before it, the Court concluded, as did the lower court, that this zoning board “did not abuse its discretion in granting the variance at issue.”

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