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House of Fire Christian Church v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of the City of Clifton

379 N.J. Super. 526, 879 A.2d 1212 (App. Div. 2005)

ZONING; BIFURCATION—Bifurcation of hearings for site plan and use variance approvals may not be appropriate where the issues are so interrelated that both applications should be considered in a single administrative proceeding at which the board can decide the negative criteria based upon the entire plan submitted.

A church bought property within a single family residential zone where a house of worship was permitted as a conditional use. It sought variance relief from the zoning board “so that it could demolish the existing single-family residence and construct a new church facility in its place.” The church sought variance relief from the minimum lot size requirement and from the minimum lot width requirement. At the time of its application, it seemingly satisfied the off-street parking requirement. Following the second of five hearings, the municipality’s planner “increased the number of required parking space from eighteen (based on the proposed seventy-seat sanctuary) to thirty-five parking spaces. This increase resulted from [the planner’s] determinations that the Sunday school classrooms constituted a ‘private school’ requiring four additional parking spaces (one space for each of the four teachers), and that the fellowship hall constituted a ‘meeting room’ or ‘place of public assembly,’ requiring thirteen additional parking spaces.” Also, the municipality “changed the minimum rear yard setback requirement for houses of worship from ten feet to thirty-five feet.” These “new” deficiencies dominated the remaining hearings and the board unanimously denied the church’s application. The church went to the Law Division. That lower court remanded the application to the board “for a consolidated hearing that [was to] include site plan detail;” ruled that the church only needed to provide one parking space for every four seats of congregational seating; invalidated the change to the rear yard setback requirement; held that the municipality violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA); and awarded counsel fees and costs to the church.

The zoning board appealed further. The Court had trouble understanding the zoning board’s resolution and found it not entirely clear from the resolution, “or from its limited discussion before voting to deny the application,” whether the board “engaged in the appropriate balancing of positive and negative criteria for inherently beneficial uses ... especially with respect to considering whether reasonable conditions could be imposed on the church’s proposed use of its land.” It pointed to a statement from the New Jersey Supreme Court that “the key to sound municipal decision-making is a clear statement of reasons for the grant or denial of a variance. ... Local boards and their counsel should take pains to memorialize their decisions in resolutions that explain fully the basis on which the Board had acted, with ample reference to the record and the pertinent statutory standards.” Both the lower court and the Appellate Division found the hearing transcripts “indeciferable whether the Board was considering the conditional use application, the site plan, or both.” Therefore, the Court agreed with the lower court that, “upon remand, the applications for variance and site plan approval should not be bifurcated.” It believed that “bifurcation ‘appears to require the developer to satisfy the negative criteria twice; once when the use variance is granted, and again when its subsequent site plan is submitted. ... This may be problematic where factors such as traffic flow, traffic congestion, ingress and egress, building orientation, and the nature of the surrounding properties are highly relevant to both the determination of whether to grant a use variance and the later decision to approve the site plan. ... Thus bifurcation ‘may not be appropriate if the board considers the use variance and site plan issue so interrelated that both applications should be considered in a single administrative proceeding, at which the board would decide the negative criteria based on the entire plan submitted.’”

While the Appellate Division agreed with the lower court about “a new unbifuracated hearing,” it did not agree that the amended ordinance was invalid or void. “Zoning ordinances and their amendments, ..., are presumptively valid, and the presumption can only be overcome by sufficient proof that the ordinance is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.” A municipality has the right to change its zoning ordinance even while a site plan application is pending and even if the amendment is “in direct response to a particular application.” Its review of the record made it believe that the municipality had a valid reason for amending the setback ordinance. For that reason, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s holding that the zoning ordinance change was invalid.

As to the lower court’s holding with respect to the RLUIPA, the Appellate Division felt that the lower court improperly shifted the burden of persuasion to the municipality and, “[w]ithout finding that the amended ordinance placed a ‘substantial burden’ on the ‘religious exercise’ of the Church, [the lower court] merely concluded that the [municipality] ‘took steps to make it more difficult for the Church to build what is a permitted use by changing a significant ordinance requirement during the pendency of the application in question without legal justification,’ and ‘[t]hat change tainted the entire process.” Under RLUIPA, a plaintiff “has the initial burden of demonstrating that the land use regulation ‘actually imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise.’” Only when that showing is made does the burden shift “to the local government to demonstrate that the challenged regulation ‘is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest’ and ’ is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’”

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