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J.P. Stewart Development, LLC v. Medford Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-1001-08T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

ZONING — When hearing an appeal from a decision of a land use board, a court is limited to determining whether the board’s decision was arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious and because a board’s decision is presumed valid, the party challenging the decision has the burden to prove otherwise.

A property owner applied for four bulk variances to construct a two story home on an existing, non-conforming, triangular shaped, undersized lot. The applicant also sought variance relief from requirements for lot depth, front yard setback, and rear yard setback. The land use board’s engineer reviewed the application and recommended several conditions, but refrained from recommending either approval or denial. At a hearing that followed, the applicant presented testimony from its principal, its construction manager, and its land use expert. Following the applicant’s presentation, eight nearby property owners spoke in objection to the application. The board denied the application, and the property owner appealed.

The lower court reversed the board’s decision as arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. Its reasoning was that the board’s “1) action rendered [the applicant’s] property useless; 2) resolution failed ‘to state with any specificity the facts grounded in the record upon which th[e] decision was reached’; and 3) resolution failed to address the negative and positive criteria required for the grant of a variance.” The board then appealed, contending that the lower court “not only failed to give substantial deference to its decision denying the application, but also improperly substituted its own judgment for that of the Board’s.” The Appellate Division disagreed.

In its decision, the Court pointed out that, in an appeal from a decision of a land use board, a lower court is “limited to determining whether the Board’s decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious. ... A local board’s decision is presumed valid, and the party challenging the decision has the burden proving otherwise. ... In reviewing a local decision, the court must determine whether the board [had] followed the statutory guidelines and properly executed its discretion. ... Because variances tend to impair sound zoning, a court should give ‘greater deference to variance denials than to grants of variances.’” Then, based on the record before it, the Court, applying those principles, upheld the lower court’s reversal of the land use board’s denial.

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