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Rogers v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of Village of Ridgewood

309 N.J. Super. 630, 707 A.2d 1090 (App. Div. 1998)

ZONING; SIGNS—A sign does not lose its protected, non-conforming status simply because its message has changed to that of another permitted business use.

A municipality adopted a sign ordinance which changed the previously conforming status of a free standing sign in front of an office building to that of a prior non-conforming sign. When the tenant vacated the building a few years later, the building owner wanted to retain the sign and simply change the message. However, the municipality’s board of adjustment denied the landlord’s applications for a protected, non-conforming use or, alternatively, for a use variance. The lower court reversed the board’s denial of a non-conforming use variance. While the landlord’s suit was pending in the lower court, the municipality adopted an amendment to its sign ordinance which had the effect of prohibiting a change of message on a non-conforming sign.

The Appellate Division stated that the sole legal issue was whether the ordinance amendment prohibiting a change of message on a prior non-conforming sign impairs a property owner’s right to maintain non-conforming uses under state statute. If so, the landlord’s right to maintain the sign with the new message must be upheld, and no variance is required. This exact question was presented in an earlier case where the Appellate Division affirmed a board’s denial of permission to retain a sign with a new message on the grounds that a new message meant a new use, and therefore was not a continuation of the prior use. In that earlier case, the dissent argued that since both the prior and subsequent uses of the premises were permitted, the change from one permitted use to another did not result in any substantial change to the non-conforming sign. Furthermore, the dissent in that earlier case argued that without a change in the sign’s shape of size, there is no substantial change to the sign. The Appellate Division in this case adopted the earlier dissenting opinion, concluding that a sign does not lose its protected non-conforming status simply because its message has changed to that of another permitted business’ use.


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