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Jackson Holdings, LLC v. Jackson Township Planning Board

414 N.J. Super. 342, 998 A.2d 530 (App. Div. 2010)

ZONING; CONDITIONAL USES — The Municipal Land Use Law allows municipalities to adopt zoning ordinances to provide for conditional uses, but municipalities may not delegate their powers to municipal planning boards by authorizing their planning boards to approve conditional uses absent clear and ascertainable standards to guide the planning board.

A property owner applied to a municipal planning board for preliminary major subdivision approval to subdivide a 303-acre tract into 493 lots for single-family residences and four lots for storm water management ponds and open space. The owner’s property was located within an RG-2 Regional Growth Zone. The zoning ordinance delegated authority to the planning board to permit higher density development in that zone as a “conditional use.” However, before authorizing such development, the ordinance required the planning board to find: (a) that the proposed development is not inconsistent with and would not create traffic hazards or adversely affect traffic patterns; and (b) that the proposed development was consistent with the intent and purpose of the municipality’s master plan and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.

After a three-day hearing, the planning board denied the owner’s application. It found that the owner failed to demonstrate that the project was consistent with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan because it had not obtained a Certificate of Filing from the Pinelands Commission confirming such consistency. In addition, the planning board found that the proposed development would create additional traffic hazards and adversely affect traffic patterns in the area. Therefore, the planning board concluded that the owner was not entitled to a conditional use approval and had to apply for a variance with the municipal zoning board of adjustment.

The owner filed suit to challenge the denial. Its complaint did not challenge the validity of the conditional use ordinance, but its trial brief included an indirect challenge to its validity. The owner argued that the ordinance lacked sufficiently definite standards and that the municipal governing body had improperly delegated its zoning powers to the planning board. The lower court concluded that there was a substantial question as to the validity of the section of the zoning ordinance that required a finding that the proposed development would not create traffic hazards or adversely affect the traffic patterns of the surrounding areas. It found that this section of the ordinance was “entirely devoid of standards and specifications.” However, the lower court did not invalidate that section of the ordinance. Instead, it considered whether the planning board’s conclusion regarding traffic hazards was reasonable, and concluded that it was not. It then found in favor of the owner.

In the appeal that followed, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded, noting that the Municipal Land Use Law allows municipalities to adopt zoning ordinances that provide for conditional uses. However, municipalities may not delegate their powers to municipal planning boards by authorizing their planning board to approve conditional uses absent “clear and ascertainable standards” to guide the planning board. A zoning ordinance that allows a planning board to approve conditional uses, but doesn’t provide clear and ascertainable standards, is void and cannot confer authority upon the planning board to approve such conditional uses.

According to the Court, if a lower court believes a property owner’s challenge of a zoning ordinance allowing for conditional uses raises a substantial question regarding the validity of an ordinance, the lower court must first determine if the ordinance is valid before reviewing the planning board’s decision. Further, if a lower court concludes that there is a substantial question as to the validity of the ordinance, the municipality must be joined in the suit as a necessary party. In this case, the Court found that the lower court had held that there was a substantial question as to the validity of the zoning ordinance. As a consequence of that holding, the planning board never had authority to consider the application and the lower court should have required the municipality to be added as a party to the lawsuit to determine if the ordinance was valid. The lower court should not have brushed aside its own concerns about the validity of the ordinance itself and only focus on the reasonableness of the planning board’s determination.


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