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John M. Rochelle Builders, Inc. v. The Planning Board of the Township of Morris

A-5298-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES — A zoning ordinance can be invalidated if found not to comply with, or not to advance the purposes of, New Jersey’s municipal land use statutes and are found to be unreasonable under the circumstances such as where the conditions that the zoning ordinance was intended to cure have long since been cured through the passage of time or by reason of other changed circumstances.

Two property owners purchased an eight-acre tract of property in the early 1950’s. The property was located in a residential zone that allowed single-family homes on lots that were at least 15,000 square feet in size. The property owners subdivided the property into lots, one of which they retained. The rest of the lots were mostly one and one-half acres in size. A few years later, following changes in the zoning ordinance, the lot retained by the property owners and the other vacant lots were put in a zone that required residential lots.

Many years later, the property owners reacquired the other rezoned lot and conveyed it, and their retained lot to a developer who sought to construct single family homes on each lot. The developer sought a variance for both lots, one of which did not meet the three-acre requirement nor the width, depth or front yard frontage requirements. It also sought relief from the municipality’s steep slope regulations. After its application was denied, the developer brought an action against the planning board. The lower court affirmed the board’s denial of the developer’s variance request. In a later decision, however, the lower court found that the changes to the zoning ordinance, as applied to the smaller lot, were arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable on the basis that they did not further any of the municipality’s zoning objectives.

On appeal, the Appellate Division pointed out that an ordinance can be invalidated if found not to comply with, or advance the purposes of, New Jersey’s municipal land use statutes or if found to be unreasonable under the circumstances. It also pointed out that the changes the restricting residential development to lots measuring less than three acres were made to address a number of concerns including lack of a sewer system, environmental issues, and residential character conflicts that existed when the ordinances were changed in the 1950s. According to the Court, many of those concerns had been eliminated by subsequent changes in the municipality, such as the construction of new sewer systems, and where most single-family homes had already been built on lots smaller than three acres. The Court affirmed the lower court’s reversal of the board’s denial of the variance and concluded that while the lots were considered merged, thus requiring subdivision, it was the zoning changes that prevented the development of the smaller lot.

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