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New Jersey Farm Bureau, Inc. v. Township of East Amwell

380 N.J. Super. 325, 882 A.2d 388 (App. Div. 2005)

MOUNT LAUREL; DOWNSIZING—Once a municipality satisfies its low and middle income housing obligations under Mount Laurel, it is not restricted from adopting an otherwise appropriate downsizing zoning ordinance designed to preserve farming areas.

A state organization representing the interests of farmers, an unincorporated association of farmers residing in a particular municipality, and several individual farmers owning land in that municipality appealed a judgment upholding an ordinance of that municipality “that increased the minimum lot size in the municipality’s agricultural district from three to ten acres. The ordinance [had] a lot averaging provision that permit[ted] residential lots as small as 1.5 acres and an ‘open land subdivision option, which allow[ed] a 50% density bonus for cluster development on 1.5 acre residential lots in exchange for the landowner’s promise to preserve the remainder as agricultural land.’” More than 90% of the municipality was in two zones, a mountain district of approximately 5,523 acres and an agricultural district of approximately 11,000 acres. Over 80% of the agricultural district consisted of “prime farmland or soils of state-wide importance, i.e., soils that are most productive for sustainable agriculture.” The overriding goal of the municipality’s ordinance was to preserve farmland. The municipality’s planning board “concluded that the three-acre zoning in effect at the time would not meet [the municipality’s] goal of preserving large tracts of farmland.” It decided that “[r]esidential densities should be low enough to be compatible with farming, and to discourage land speculators, but not so low as to substantially affect land equity.” The board did not think that “even mandatory clustering” would “preserve large blocks of contiguous acreage for long term agricultural production.”

An ordinance to implement the planning board’s recommendation was introduced, but because “a sufficient number of landowners” in the affected agricultural district protested the ordinance, a “two-thirds majority vote of the governing body [was needed] to adopt [the] ordinance.” With that requirement, the governing body, with only 60% affirmative vote, could not pass the ordinance. After the next municipal election, the new ordinance was adopted. The present suit was filed, and the lower court upheld the validity of the ordinance. It “concluded that the rezoning provided thereunder was reasonably related to the objectives of encouraging agricultural uses and preserving farmland.” The farmers and their associations appealed, but the Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s ruling. It rejected the farmers’ argument that the ordinance constituted “exclusionary zoning.” Under Mount Laurel II, a municipality only has “an obligation to provide a realistic opportunity through its zoning for decent housing for its poor” where the municipality, or portions thereof, are in “growth areas.” The obligation does not extend to areas where growth is discouraged, such as on prime farmland. There was no question in the Appellate Division’s mind that the agricultural district in this municipality was a “rural area that the municipality may preserve for agricultural uses consistent with the Mount Laurel doctrine as explained in Mount Laurel II.” In sum, the Appellate Division was satisfied that the lower court had properly determined that the affected district was “a quintessential agricultural community that the State Plan properly designated as a Rural Planning Area and that [the ordinance in question was] reasonably designed to preserve that rural character.”

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