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McDonald’s Corporation v. Readington Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-6784-97T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)

ZONING; INTERPRETATION—In a zoning matter dealing with the meaning of “premises,” the spirit of the legislation prevails over the literal reading where the literal reading of an ordinance leads to a result not in accord with the legislation’s basic purpose.

A fast food restaurant sought a use and a bulk variance to add a drive-thru window to its existing restaurant. The application was denied and the restaurant appealed to the courts. One issue was the restaurant’s contention that a drive-thru window was permitted under the applicable zoning ordinance. The zoning ordinance defines “restaurant” as “[a]ny establishment, however designated, in which food is sold primarily for consumption on the premises and within a building.” A fast food restaurant is defined as “a public eating facility where patrons purchase food while within the physical premises of the restaurant, which is obtained by self-service or from the employee of the establishment over a counter, for consumption within the establishment or away from the premises.” Further, the permitted uses in the business zone included “fast-food restaurants when located within a principal building of a shopping center or planned commercial development. Fast-food restaurants shall not be permitted in free-standing buildings.” The ordinance also provided that all uses not expressly permitted by the ordinance are prohibited. The restaurant took the position that the use of “premises” in the definition of fast food restaurants encompassed both the building and the land on which the building is located and, thus, customers purchasing food at the proposed drive-thru window would be “within the physical premises of the restaurant.” If that were the case, the drive-thru would be a permitted use in the business zone. In support of its argument, the restaurant pointed to cases where the word “premises” was interpreted to mean land and buildings. The zoning board acknowledged that the word “premises” could be so used, but contended that in its ordinance where the definition of a fast-food restaurant specifically stated that it is a place where customers purchase food “while within the physical premises of the restaurant,” this meant a purchase “within the establishment” or “within the building.” In support of its position, the board argued that by limiting fast food restaurants to “a principal building of a shopping center or planned commercial development,” the probable intent of the governing body was to prohibit drive-thru windows in fast food restaurants. By contrast, when the ordinance drafters wished to allow a drive-thru, as in the case of banks, such a use was expressly addressed and permitted. The Court agreed with the board’s argument and held the fast food drive-thru was not a permitted use in the business zone. The Court also pointed out that where a literal reading of an ordinance may lead to a result not in accord with the essential purpose and design of the legislation, “the spirt of the legislative direction prevails over the literal sense of the terms.”


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