Meehan v. K.D. Partners, L.P.

317 N.J. Super. 563, 722 A.2d 938 (App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: December 18, 1999

ZONING; INTERVENTION—When a party timely intervenes following a judicial dismissal of a settled zoning matter, the court should limit its review to whether the settling parties had the right to reach their settlement in light of the “public interest” in a land use dispute.

A property owner sought to convert an existing hotel to an eight-unit hotel with kitchen facilities. To do this, it required a use variance. Its application was successful, but a neighboring property owner filed an action in lieu of prerogative writ challenging the approval. The lower court “voided” the approval. It concluded that it was an improper conflict of interest for a member of the planning board to deliberate in a matter in which that member’s father was a witness. The landowner appealed. While the appeal was pending, the neighbor and the landowner “settled.” Consequently, the lower court vacated the final judgment and granted the approval and variance relief. The next day, a different property owner gave notice of his intention to intervene and then timely filed a motion seeking to intervene in a dismissed action. The rule permitting intervention is liberally construed. An applicant must: (1) claim “an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the transaction,” (2) show he is “so situated that the disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede his ability to protect that interest,” (3) demonstrate that the “applicant’s interest” is not “adequately represented by existing parties,” and (4) make a “timely application to intervene.” The Appellate Division found that the second neighbor should be permitted to intervene. The second neighbor, however, argued that its intervention should cause the consent judgment to be set aside. The Appellate Division disagreed, concluding that the intervention should be limited to a challenge to the settlement. While the second neighbor’s application to intervene as of right was sufficiently timely to entitle it to the right of intervention, its delay in acting served to limit the nature of its intervention. The second neighbor was aware of the settlement and the progress of the proceeding before both the lower court and the Appellate Division. Consequently, the Court found that it could not sit idly by and allow the matter to proceed and then simply by intervening, suggest that what had transpired earlier was of no moment. The lower court was ordered to provide judicial oversight, and not to act as a planning board. It was required first to make a threshold finding as to whether any of the settlement terms were illegal or void as against public policy, i.e., to address the issue of the right of the parties to “settle” the conflict of interest issue which the lower court had previously found dispositive in voiding the earlier approval. The Appellate Division questioned, without deciding, whether withdrawal of an appeal can serve to resurrect an approval which had previously been voided by the lower court. The Appellate Division also remanded to question the nature of the “settlement” which involved a withdrawal of the initial neighbor’s opposition to the appeal and proposed plan and to decide whether this, in fact, constituted a “settlement” entitled to deference, given the pervasive “public interest” in a land use dispute.