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Jensen v. The Township Council of the Township of Lacey

A-3956-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

ZONING; MASTER PLAN— A municipal ordinance may not be struck down as arbitrary or capricious if it was enacted to further the purpose of a master plan and was passed in accordance with the required procedures.

A municipality adopted a master plan designed to reduce traffic congestion. To further the plan, an ordinance was passed amending a section of the municipality’s code. It required that there be a fifty foot buffer zone between residential and nonresidential properties. The amendment permitted property owners whose land abutted a municipal right of way to dedicate a portion of their property to the municipality while continuing to use the dedicated land as part of the required buffer zone. The purpose of the ordinance was to encourage residents to dedicate part of their land so that the municipality could construct a bypass to the local highway to alleviate traffic. A local property owner who owned a home abutting a municipal right of way filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs. The property owner alleged that the ordinance was arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, and in violation of the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). The lower court dismissed the property owner’s complaint, ruling that the ordinance conformed with the goals set forth in the municipality’s master plan which was to alleviate traffic congestion. The property owner appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling. On appeal, the property owner set forth four arguments. First, it asserted that the ordinance was invalid because it was designed to achieve an unauthorized purpose, which was to assist the municipality in acquiring property to build the bypass. The Court disagreed, holding that the MLUL permits municipalities to adopt zoning ordinances regulating land development in order to promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the public. It further ruled that a zoning ordinance is presumed to be valid unless the party attacking the ordinance can demonstrate that it is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or contrary to the fundamental principles of zoning. The Court also held that the ordinance carried forth the goal of the master plan which was to correct traffic problems and that such goal promoted the safety and welfare of the public. The property owner also contended that the ordinance constituted spot zoning. Spot zoning is the use of zoning power to benefit a particular private interest as opposed to the collective interests of the community. The Court rejected this argument, ruling that the purpose of the ordinance was not to benefit certain property owners, but was to alleviate traffic which benefits the entire community. The property owner also asserted that the ordinance violated the basic principles of equal protection under the Constitution. The Court disagreed, holding that the government is allowed to make distinctions between people when rationally related to a public interest. Lastly, the property owner argued that the ordinance should be struck down because it constituted an impermissible demand for a contribution by the municipality because the buffer requirements would still be strictly enforced against property owners who refused to dedicate part of their property. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the dedication of property was voluntary and did not permit certain landowners to circumvent the buffer requirement.

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