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Lang v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of Borough of North Caldwell

160 N.J. 41, 733 A.2d 464 (1999)

ZONING; VARIANCES—Personal hardship is irrelevant to satisfying the statutory requirement of a showing of hardship for a variance; the correct focus must be on whether strict enforcement of the ordinance would cause undue hardship because of unique or exceptional conditions of the specific property.

At issue in this appeal was the grant of a bulk or dimensional variance under the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law for the construction of an in-ground swimming pool on a residential property. The pool, as proposed, would have resulted in an insufficient side yard setback, an insufficient rear yard setback, and excessive land coverage by the pool. The property itself was nonconforming, being both deficient in width and in area. In addition, a paved driveway and garage covered almost all of one side yard and a substantial portion of the rear yard. An abutting property owner objected, but the zoning board found that the need for the variances was created by the unusual narrowness of the lot, combined with the location of the driveway and garage. It also found that those unique features of the property constituted an exceptional and undue hardship within the meaning of the statute. It further determined that replacing an existing above-ground pool and deck with an in-ground pool constituted an aesthetic and safety enhancement to the property that outweighed any detriment. The “negative criteria” of the statute were seen as satisfied by the proposed location of the pool on the lot and the existing and planned landscaping, which would shield the pool from the view of the neighbors unless they stood at the boundary of the properties. The neighbor appealed the board’s decision to the Law Division, but that court concluded that the board properly granted the variance. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the only claim of hardship was that an “oversize” pool was required because of the need to accommodate a diving board and concluded that accommodating a diving board was not a hardship. The applicant appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which reversed the Appellate Division, and held for the applicant. A provision of the Municipal Land Use Law provides that undue hardship can be shown in three situations: (a) where there is exceptional narrowness, shallowness or shape of the property; (b) where exceptional topographic conditions or physical features uniquely affect the property; or (c) where some other exceptional situation uniquely affects the property. According to the Court, an earlier opinion appeared to imply that the “hardship” referred to by the statute must be personal to the specific property owner. However, subsequent case law emphasized that “personal hardship is irrelevant to the statutory standard, and that the correct focus must be on whether the strict enforcement of the ordinance would cause undue hardship because of the unique or exceptional conditions of the specific property.” The Court also took issue with the Appellate Division’s emphasis on the applicant’s ability to have installed a conforming in-ground pool. This was an inappropriate test because in a bulk variance context, the applicable statute provides plainly that the causation element that must be satisfied relates to the unique condition of the property. Therefore, what is essential is proof that the need for the variance is occasioned by the unique condition of the property that constitutes the basis of the claim of hardship. As a result, the Court was persuaded that the zoning board’s conclusion that “the proposed pool size was reasonable in scale and fairly typical for such installations” appeared to be adequately supported by the record and was the result of the board’s focus on the exceptional narrowness of the lot, combined with the effect of the existing driveway and garage. In the Court’s view, the board’s conclusion that those unique conditions of the applicant’s property “caused” the need for variance relief was amply supported by the record.


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