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McLaughlin v. Howell Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-1129-10T4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

TAXATION; AGRICULTURE — Since a horse breeding farm is an agricultural use, and farm labor houses are commonly, habitually, and by long practice established as reasonably associated with the primary use of a horse farm, the New Jersey Agriculture Development Committee has the authority to approve construction of farm laborer houses.

A horse farm had a residence, barn, stable, fenced paddock, and a structure that was previously used as a chicken coop. The farmer wanted to convert the chicken coop into an apartment for a farm laborer’s use while working at the farm. He obtained permission from the municipality’s Board of Agriculture, who ruled that the structure’s use as housing was an accessory use to the principal use of farming. The farmer then proceeded to renovate the structure and someone moved in. Later, the New Jersey Agriculture Development Committee determined that the Board did not have any statutory authority under the Right to Farm Act to address farm laborer housing. So, the farmer sought an interpretation from the municipality’s zoning officer as to whether the structure was considered an accessory use. The zoning officer ruled that it was not and the farm owner appealed this decision and also applied for a variance in the alternative. A neighbor objected to both applications.

After a hearing was conducted, the zoning board agreed that the structure was an accessory use. A horse breeding farm was an agriculture use as defined in the municipality’s land use ordinance. Furthermore, farm labor houses were “commonly, habitually, and by long practice established as reasonably associated with the primary use” as required by the definition of accessory use. The Board also concluded that the horse farm and the property’s farm structure were related compatible buildings that constituted one basic use. The lower court affirmed the board’s decision, finding that it was fully supported by the record,. The neighbor appealed.

The municipality’s “Agriculture Rural Estates Zones” described the permitted uses for each zone. It defined permitted accessory uses to include those uses that are “customarily incidental and ancillary to a permitted use.” The Appellate Division upheld the zoning board’s determination, to the effect that the structure’s use as farm labor housing was reasonably associated with the primary use of horse farming. Thus, such use constituted a permitted accessory use to the present farm use. This was all amply supported by the record. Plainly, allowing horse farming as a principal use implies that farm labor might need to be housed on the property. Therefore, the Court rejected the neighbor’s argument that the board had acted arbitrarily or capriciously.

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