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Riya Finnegan LLC v. Township Council of the Township of South Brunswick

2008 WL 5413099 (N.J. Supr. Ct. 2008)

ZONING; SPOT ZONING — A municipal decision to pass an ordinance to rezone a parcel is invalid if it is arbitrary and capricious or if the rezoning is designed to benefit a particular interest, and not made with the purpose or effect of furthering a comprehensive scheme, which, if that were the case, would constitute impermissible inverse spot zoning.

An owner of a sizable parcel of undeveloped land filed a site plan application, seeking to develop its parcel by constructing one professional and two retail buildings, one of which was to be a drugstore. In accordance with the municipality’s master plan for land use, the parcel was included in a neighborhood commercial (C-1) zone. The application fully complied with the zone’s requirements, but neighboring residents objected, contending that retail pharmacies were not a permitted use. The municipal planning and zoning boards rejected that challenge and concluded that a drugstore was a permitted use in the C-1 zone. The neighboring residents next appeared before the municipality’s council and asked that the parcel be rezoned to Office Professional (OP), a previously existing zone included in the master plan. The neighbors complained that the proposed commercial land use would result in additional traffic, noise, odor, dust, and pollution. The council adopted an ordinance which rezoned the parcel from C-1 to OP. The accompanying resolution, while recognizing that the decision to rezone would be inconsistent with the master plan, stated that it would nevertheless significantly protect the health, safety, and welfare of the residents and motorists in the area, would prevent an intensification of traffic congestion, and would be offset by the numerous number of retail and similar commercial establishments in the zone. The owner filed suit alleging the ordinance was inconsistent with the master plan, was arbitrary and capricious, and constituted impermissible inverse spot zoning.

The lower court granted the owner relief, concluding that because the municipality’s council had based its decision solely on the assertions of neighbors with no supporting record, its decision to rezone via ordinance was arbitrary and capricious. Additionally, the lower court found that because the municipality only rezoned the owner’s parcel, and no evidence supported that the change would further the comprehensive zoning plan, the change constituted impermissible inverse spot zoning. The lower court therefore declared the ordinance invalid and remanded the matter to the municipal planning board for its consideration of the site plan application. The municipality appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the judgment of the lower court and reinstated the ordinance. The Appellate Division felt that the municipality sufficiently set forth reasons for rezoning the parcel and that because the parcel was larger than the other parcels in the C-1 zone, the reasons given in the accompanying resolution justified singling it out for rezoning. On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstated the judgment of the lower court. The Court found that the municipality failed to adequately explain its inconsistent action with the master plan, as the concerns of the neighbors were generic, there was no evidence that uses permitted by an office park would not also generate traffic congestion in volume or during hours that were of concern to residents, and there was no explanation why the owner’s property suddenly became appropriate to be zoned OP. On this factual record, the Court concluded that the municipal decision to pass an ordinance to rezone the one parcel was arbitrary and capricious.

The Court additionally concluded that the decision to rezone the property constituted impermissible inverse spot zoning. The Court inquired whether the particular provision of the zoning ordinance was made with the purpose or effect of furthering a comprehensive scheme or whether it was designed to benefit particular interests. In this matter, the Court observed that the zoning change made it more difficult for the owner to develop his property, that the neighbors were the impetus for the zoning change, that the new zoning designation did not further a comprehensive plan, and that municipal officials acted without hearing from expert planners or consultants.

66 Park Street • Montclair, New Jersey 07042
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