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Greenwood v. The Mayor and Township Committee of the Township of Hopewell

A-1910-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

ZONING; ORDINANCES — The fundamental question in all zoning ordinance cases is whether the requirements of the ordinance are reasonable under the circumstances.

A municipality adopted a zoning ordinance. It established two conservation zoning districts. Each district had minimum lot requirements. Affected property owners challenged the ordinance in court, asserting that the down-zoning was driven entirely by unfounded water resource concerns that were beyond the municipality’s zoning.

The lower court held that the challenged provisions were a valid exercise of municipal authority under the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) and were supported by considerable study, consultation with experts, and many public hearings. The factual record indicated that the two zones lacked public water and sewer infrastructure, requiring all but 3,500 residents to obtain their water from wells and to dispose of their waste through septic systems. The purpose of the zones was to implement the goals and objectives set forth in the municipality’s master plan, which called for protecting environmentally sensitive areas, and recognizing development capacity limitations established by natural resource capabilities. Expert testimony indicated that aquifers were the only sources of available drinking water for most of the municipality, and had to be protected from contamination. The municipality’s water expert testified that the dependable yield of the aquifers were almost all consumed by current users. His model indicated a minimum recharge area that approximated the minimum lot sizes in the zones at issue. The municipality planner relied on that expert’s report when recommending zone lot sizes. Two other experts testified that the ordinance furthered the goals of sensible growth in harmony with natural resource conservation and allowed for the most efficient wastewater management. The challengers offered no water supply expert. The lower court concluded that there was more than substantial evidence to support the planning rationale of the two zones based on their character. The residents appealed, arguing that the lot restrictions in the zones were not supported by sufficient credible evidence.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling. It held that the fundamental question in all zoning ordinance cases is whether the requirements of the ordinance are reasonable under the circumstances. The Court noted that the record indicated the municipality’s rural character was vanishing and the master plan recognized a need for conservation. The plan set the densities of the two zones based upon the carrying capacity of its natural water system. The Court found the lower court findings were amply supported by the substantial evidence provided by the municipality. Thus, it held the municipal ordinance was valid and not preempted by any state or federal law governing water regulation particular to that municipality.

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