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Riddhi Siddhi Associates, L.L.C. v. Voorhees Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

A-1854-09T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING; USE VARIANCES — Where there has been no significant change to the character of an area that justifies departure from a municipal decision to eliminate certain uses as permitted uses in the zone, a land use board should not grant a use variance for that particular use.

A developer submitted an application for use and height variance relief from a municipal zoning ordinance to construct a hotel, restaurant, and banquet center. The use variance was needed because hotels were not permitted in the zone. The height variance was to allow a building a little over the maximum height of forty feet. When the developer originally purchased the property, hotels were permitted. At the time this ordinance was adopted, the municipality was aware of a proposed local hospital expansion construction project. Three months after adopting the ordinance, the municipality adopted the successor ordinance that specifically eliminated hotels as a permitted use in the zone. In adopting that ordinance, the municipality was responding to concerns about large-scale development raised by a residential community located about one-half mile from the property.

In support of its hotel application, the developer’s principal testified that he believed there was a need for a hotel based on his experience as a doctor at the nearby, newly constructed hospital. He said there was a tremendous need to have a hotel in the area to house family members of surgery patients, but could not really quantify the demand and acknowledged there were already two hotels in the municipality. An expert testified that there was a need for another hotel in the area based upon the occupancy rates of the existing hotels and because the hospital would become a regional medical center. The company’s planner testified that while the hotel was not an inherently beneficial use, its construction would be compatible with the hospital’s use, which was an inherently beneficial use, as well as with the neighborhood and other uses in the area. Another expert indicated any increased traffic would be insignificant and the height of the hotel would exceed the maximum height by only six feet.

The board approved the application. The board found special reasons for the grant of both the use and height variances, as the proposed hotel was compatible with the needs and demands generated by the hospital project. Additionally, the board found the application would not result in a substantial detriment to the public good, because any traffic generated would be insignificant, and there would be little or no detrimental impact on the residences near the development. Though the hotel was not a permitted use listed in the master plan for zoning, the board found the hotel would have an inconsequential impact on neighboring residential development. The board also found the six foot height variance would not be a substantial detriment to the public good and would not impair the intent and purpose of the master plan.

A taxpayer in the municipality filed suit challenging the board’s approval. The lower court set aside the board’s variance grants, finding the board’s action arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. The lower court focused on the fact that the municipality acted affirmatively and unequivocally to eliminate hotels as a permitted use in the proposed area of construction, and did not reverse itself at any time once the medical hospital expansion project was developed. It held that in the absence of proofs by the applicant of a substantial change along the corridor in which the construction was proposed, the zoning board could not grant a use variance in contradiction of the governing body’s directive.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court said that municipalities are empowered to adopt zoning ordinances within the context of their land use master plans. A governing body also is empowered to periodically reevaluate master plans and zoning ordinances to insure they reflect contemporary needs and conditions. An applicant for a variance from a municipality’s plan must prove that the grant can be reconciled with the zoning restriction from which the applicant wishes to deviate. In this matter, the Court held the board acted improperly by failing to realize the hospital expansion project already had come far along when the municipality removed hotels as a permitted use in that zone. Therefore, the hospital project could not have been a justification for a variance from the permitted use. The Court concluded that there had been no significant change to the character of the area that would justify departure from the municipal decision to eliminate hotels as a permitted use in the zone. The Court believed the municipality’s decision was motivated by a concern over the proximity of the residential development to any potential hotel in that area, and this specific concern had not changed, nor had it been addressed by the applicant.

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