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Hartung v. Baker

2006 WL 1063291 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

ZONING; EQUITABLE ESTOPPEL — Equitable estoppel may be applied against a municipality where the interests of justice, morality, and common fairness clearly dictate that course, but to claim equitable estoppel against application of a zoning ordinance, the property owner must have relied on an official’s erroneous and debatable interpretation of the ordinance made in good faith and within the scope of its duty.

A homeowner submitted drawings to a municipality’s subcode official for approval to enlarge an existing detached garage and connect it to the existing dwelling. The submitted sketches contained a spreadsheet of the applicable set-back requirements. Neither the homeowner nor the subcode official realized that by attaching the garage to the dwelling, the side yard setback requirement for the garage would increase. The submitted plans did not provide for moving the garage to comply with the increase in the side yard setback requirement. The subcode official approved the construction plans. Relying on this approval, the homeowner hired an architect and contractor. The subcode official approved the architectural drawings and issued a construction permit. Other municipal officials inspected the construction and no one spotted the side yard setback error. Upon complaint of a neighbor, a stop work order was issued. The municipality claimed the problem was entirely one of the homeowner’s creation in failing to properly provide a correct zoning schedule showing the side yard setback deviation. Further, the municipality claimed the public good had been adversely impacted as evidenced by the neighbor’s tax appeal alleging a loss in value to his home due to the construction taking place in violation of the side yard setback requirement. The homeowner asserted good faith reliance on the government’s actions, claiming that, under the totality of the circumstances, it was less blameworthy and therefore entitled to complete the construction.

Under the doctrine of equitable estoppel, a person may, by voluntary conduct, be precluded from taking a course of action that would work injustice and wrong to one who with good reason and in good faith has relied upon such conduct. Similarly, a person may not repudiate an act after another person, having the right to do so, relied on that act. Here, the Court needed to balance the interests of the homeowner against the rights and duties of the municipality to promote the public welfare through proper zoning an planning. Equitable estoppel may be applied against a municipality where the interests of justice, morality, and common fairness clearly dictate that course. However, equitable estoppel is rarely invoked if it would interfere with the provision of essential government functions. To claim equitable estoppel, the homeowner must have relied on the subcode official’s erroneous and debatable interpretation of the ordinance made in good faith and within the scope of its duty. Anyone seeking the benefit of equitable estoppel against a municipality has the burden of clearly proving entitlement to the relief through powerfully persuasive evidence. Fact-sensitive considerations must be analyzed in determining whether to grant equitable relief. These include, but are not limited to, considering the scope of the deviation from the zoning ordinance; the nature of the deviation; the impact of the deviation on the neighborhood; the impact of the deviation on the zoning plan and ordinance; the respective culpability of all parties; the status of the party claiming entitlement to the benefit of equitable relief; the presence of any evidence of collusion; the hardship to the party claiming the benefit of equitable relief; and the detriment, if any, to the public interest if equitable estoppel is applied. After applying the facts to the stated standards, the Court found: a debatable and reasonable basis for the subcode official to have erred in its interpretation of the zoning ordinance; the deviation to be a de minimis departure form the ordinance; the impact on the neighborhood to be insubstantial; and that the homeowner would suffer an inequitable hardship if forced to halt construction and remove the garage. Equitable estoppel applied and the municipality was enjoined from enforcing its stop work order.


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