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Martin v. Board of Adjustment of the Borough of Paramus

A-0053-06T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING — Where a land use board’s conclusions and its considerations of the evidence do not gauge whether applied-for renovations benefit the surrounding community, but only consider the impact on the applicant-homeowner, it acts unreasonably, capriciously, and arbitrarily.

A homeowner, who was also a builder, made a number of renovations to his house over a seven year period. He received approval for a variance that allowed him to extend an addition to the rear of the house into the required thirty-foot setback. While the addition extended beyond the thirty-foot limit, it did not extend as far as was anticipated in the homeowner’s proposal to the municipal board. Even though the addition extended about three quarters of a foot to the sides beyond the zoning ordinance’s eight-foot limit, but the homeowner never applied for a variance to extend the side limit. Two years later, the homeowner built a deck. It extended six inches beyond the twenty-foot required setback for decks. He did not anticipate that the deck would extend into the setback, and he never sought a variance. Five years later, the homeowner built a bay window on one side of his house. The window turned out to be larger than planned and extended beyond the allowable ten-foot setback on the side of the house.

Upon the municipality’s advisement, the homeowner applied for variances for the deck and the window. At the variance hearing, the homeowner testified that the effect of the incursions was minimal. The homeowner’s next door neighbor, an attorney whose house faced the bay window, objected to the requested variances. The board voted in favor of the variances, finding that the encroachments were minimal and that the constructions improved the value of the property consistent with land use laws. The board’s approval was granted on the condition that the homeowner place a landscape buffer between the bay window and his neighbor’s property.

The neighbor sued, seeking removal of all of the encroaching renovations as well as compensatory and punitive damages. He argued that the encroachments resulted in a hardship, that the renovations did not serve any general purposes, and that relevant evidence was excluded. The lower court found that the evidence and cross-examination relied on by the neighbor were improperly denied. It, however, found that the board was allowed to grant the variance but since that the neighbor was denied procedural rights the matter was remanded back to the board so that the neighbor could receive a fair hearing. The lower court held that, on remand, the homeowner could present additional arguments.

On appeal, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision to remand the matter to the board and found that the board’s decision was unreasonable, capricious, and arbitrary because the board’s conclusions, and its consideration of the evidence, did not gauge whether the renovations benefited the surrounding community, but only considered the impact on the homeowner. The Court refused to dismiss the neighbor’s appeal on the grounds that he was not an aggrieved party and found that the neighbor was aggrieved by the lower court’s judgment. It also found that evidence presented by the homeowner was insufficient to justify the board’s decision to grant the variances and that a remand was not necessary. Although, the Court noted that a municipal board receives greater deference for the denial of a variance than for an approval of one, it also noted that a board’s factual findings are given great deference due its specific knowledge of local conditions but that a board’s findings of law are subject to a de novo, or complete, review by the courts. The Court also rejected the homeowner’s argument that the variance should have been granted because of a hardship based on the shape and size of the lot and noted that the homeowner did not offer evidence that the renovations resulted in a minimal negative impact. It found no conditions that would have justified a hardship claim and that any hardship or unusual conditions of the lot were the result of the homeowner’s own actions and pointed out that the homeowner had deviated from the original plans approved by the municipality. The Court also pointed out that the lower court’s finding that the renovations resulted in minimal negative impact, the negative criteria, was not sufficient to grant the variance because the positive criteria of a hardship was not established.

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