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Lau v. Township of Delaware Planning Board

HNT-L-277-04 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES—Where a land use board does not spell out its exact rationale for its decision and where a board provides no underlying justification for its grant or denial of a variance application, a court will remand the matter to the board for a supplemental resolution.

Challengers sued a municipal planning board to overturn a variance grant to an applicant intending to build a church and septic system. The challengers argued that the board’s “grant of the variances was arbitrary and capricious,” and that the proposed use was not permitted since one of the applicant’s lots did not meet the impervious coverage requirement.

The application was initially denied by a board resolution, but after the applicant appealed the decision “in federal court under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ... as well as under various other statutes protecting civil rights,” the board settled with the applicant. Shortly thereafter, the board held a hearing and subsequently granted the application.

The Appellate Division held that the challengers’ complaints regarding the applicant’s “use of the site in a residential area in the face of good planning ... appear[ed] to attack” the site’s zoning and since “[z]oning is the province of” the municipality committee, “not the Planning Board, which must implement the zoning[,]” the challengers’ complaints regarding use lacked standing. But the Court additionally held that “[i]n the planning process, planning and zoning Boards must articulate, in a consistent manner, the principles that guide their actions.” The Court found that the board’s resolution did not “explicitly state that the Board” was “bound absolutely by the federal settlement so that no further rationale for the variances was appropriate.” Thus, the Court held that it could not “pass judgment on whether such a recitation of a federal settlement would be sufficient without more to sustain the [variance] approval.”

The “resolution ... approving the [applicant’s] development ... never spell[ed] out the exact rationale for approving ... the ... excess coverage,” and the Board never provided any “underlying justification for the variance grant.” Therefore, the Court sent the case back to the board, ordering that it provide “a supplementary resolution addressing: a) the specific issues of the grounds for the variance regarding the” front and side yard setbacks for the applicant’s planned septic system; and “b) the grounds for the excess impervious lot coverage ... to allow 13% when the [applicable] ordinance” only permitted 10%. The Court affirmed the board’s decision “[i]n all other respects.”

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