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New Horizon Investment Corp. v. Mayor and Municipal Council of the Township of Belleville

A-1596-07T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

ZONING; APPEALS; RIPENESS — Although interpretation of a zoning ordinance may primarily implicate legal concerns, a party cannot safely ignore the right to apply for administrative determination from a land use board or apply for a variance, and instead sue.

Two property owners owned vacant lots within a tract designated as “in need of redevelopment.” Each of the owners purchased their property with knowledge that their lots would be subject to the redevelopment plan and its restrictions. They never submitted any development plan, sought any approvals, requested any interpretations of the zoning map or ordinance, or applied for any variances. Instead, they sued the municipality seeking a judicial determination that any development application they might submit had to be reviewed under the regulations pertaining to the underlying residential zone.

The lower court dismissed the property owners’ complaint, noting that the property owners were aware of the restrictions on the use of their land when they made their purchase. It held that they were not entitled to the relief they sought because they failed to exhaust their available administrative remedies. The property owners appealed, arguing: (a) the lower court erred in declining to exercise jurisdiction because the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine was inapplicable; and (b) since the municipality failed to explicitly amend its zoning map at the time it adopted the redevelopment plan, the zoning regulations contained in the plan merely overlaid, but did not supersede, the underlying residential zoning regulations.

The Appellate Division affirmed. It agreed with the lower court that the property owners were barred from the relief they sought because they failed to exhaust their available administrative remedies. Based on this disposition, the Court found it was unnecessary to decide whether the zoning regulations contained in the plan superseded the existing zoning regulations. It declared that although interpretation of a zoning ordinance primarily implicated legal concerns, a party could not safely ignore the right to apply for a determination of the issue by the local zoning board of adjustment or for a variance, and instead sue the municipality. It noted that, in a prior similar case, it had ruled that since no local action was being challenged, there could be no suggestion that requiring exhaustion of local administrative remedies would be futile. The Court held that local boards of adjustment possess jurisdiction to grant variance relief from the provisions of a redevelopment plan, whether or not the provisions constitute an overlay upon existing zoning. Thus, it opined that similar authority existed for a party, such as the property owners in the instant case, to seek interpretation from the zoning board of a zoning ordinance or a zoning map in connection with a redevelopment plan.

The Court also held that “a zoning board may consult with the planning board if there [is] a question as to the design and intendment of the redevelopment plan.” The Court also rejected the property owners’ argument that a local zoning board’s disposition of a variance application or interpretation of the redevelopment plan would have no bearing because their challenge went to the validity of the ordinance. Here, the Court noted that the property owners were not challenging the constitutional validity of the ordinance by which the municipality enacted the redevelopment plan, but rather sought a determination regarding its effect on the zoning status of their property. Because the property owners essentially were seeking an advisory ruling, the Court believed such matters are better served by requiring that a record be made at the local level where the officials are more familiar with the municipality’s characteristics and interests. It concluded that once these zoning issues were resolved at the local level, the consequences of the determination would be ripe for consideration. Finally, it held that none of the exceptions to the exhaustion of remedies requirement applied.

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