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Iannacone v. Planning Board of the Borough of Wood-Ridge

BER-L-7547-06 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES — The judicial deference accorded to a land use board’s denial of a variance is greater than the deference given to the grant of a variance, and a party seeking to overturn the denial of a variance must prove that the evidence before the board was so overwhelmingly in favor of the applicant such that the board acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying the application.

A landowner owned two adjacent lots that it wanted to reconfigure into three lots and build a new dwelling on the newly created parcel. It filed an application with the planning board for this minor subdivision. Approval would have required three new dimensional variances. As part of the application, the applicant promised to remove a nonconforming garage and eliminate a nonconforming two family home on one of the existing parcels. It also offered to place a deed restriction on the proposed middle lot. It would require larger sideyard setbacks for the new structures than otherwise be required. This would have provided sufficient separation between a new structure on the proposed new lot and the existing dwellings. The purpose of this restraint was to mitigate the effect of the sideyard deviations on the already-improved parcels.

The board denied the variances and the subdivision application, noting chiefly that the requested bulk variances would not advance the purposes of the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). The board also believed the proposed subdivision would cause substantial detriment to the public good if granted; would substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance; and would undermine the light, air, and open space that currently existed. The landowner filed suit, alleging that the board’s findings and conclusion to deny the application were not supported by the record and were arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.

The lower court noted that a party seeking to overturn the denial of a variance must prove that the evidence before the land use board was overwhelmingly in favor of the applicant. The Court also noted that a reviewing court’s inquiry must focus on the validity of the board’s action rather than substitute the Court’s own judgment for the proper exercise of the board’s judgment. Lastly, it noted that a local governmental agency’s determination should not be vacated because of doubts as to its wisdom or because the record could support more than one result.

As such, the Court concluded that the decision of the board was neither legally nor factually compromised so as to be arbitrary and capricious. The Court believed that the board engaged in principled decision-making within the appropriate framework of the MLUL. For that reason, it would not disturb the denial. The Court believed that even though granting the subdivision would have removed existing non-conforming uses, the board acted within its discretionary authority to conclude that those attributes did not outweigh the detriments of creating two new significant nonconformities – the sideyard deviations to the developed parcels – even in light of the mitigating effects of restricting the location of the new dwelling on the proposed new parcel.

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