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Rumson Estates, Inc. v. Mayor & Council of the Borough of Fair Haven

177 N.J. 338, 828 A.2d 317 (2003)

ZONING; DEFINITIONS—A municipality may adopt an ordinance altering non-mandatory definitions in the Municipal Land Use Law.

A municipality changed its zoning from one that required sixty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 7,500 square feet to one that required only fifty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet. The zoning ordinance included a maximum floor area ratio of .40. Basically, this ratio limits habitable floor area to 40% of the total lot. In addition, the floor area was capped at 2,200 square feet for all single-family dwellings.

A developer owned a large piece of property and proposed to subdivide it into three different size lots. Using the floor area ratio, it would have been able to build three houses of about 3,600 square feet. However, the cap limited its houses to 2,200 square feet. It was denied a variance to exceed the cap and sued, claiming, among other things, “that the cap was ultra vires (unauthorized, beyond the scope of power allowed by law) because it altered the [Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL)] definition of ‘lot’ and thus skewed the MLUL definition of ‘floor area ratio.’” The lower court held for the municipality, “concluding [the municipality’s] purpose in enacting the cap, which was to diversify the town’s residential housing stock by allowing for smaller, more affordable construction, was a legitimate one, and that [the developer] did not defeat the presumption in favor of the cap’s validity.” The Appellate Division affirmed, “observing that [the municipality’s] purposes in enacting the ordinance were legitimate goals of ensuring the proportionality of new construction to other homes in the zone and providing affordable housing in a municipality with limited area and housing stock.” The Court upheld the cap as an exercise of the municipality’s authority under the MLUL to regulate the size of structures by using, in addition to floor area ratios, ‘other ratios and regulatory techniques.’”

On further appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, that Court held that “[w]ith a narrow exception, the MLUL does not preclude a municipality from adopting a zoning ordinance that defines terms differently from the definitions in the MLUL.” Even though defined terms in the MLUL have specified meanings, “there is nothing in the legislative history or in the MLUL itself to suggest that the Legislature intended the definition language to constitute a broad prohibition of municipal zoning and initiatives.” Consequently, “[a] municipality may enact a zoning ordinance that alters non-mandatory definitions in the MLUL. Similarly, municipalities may adopt both floor area ratios and other ratios or regulatory techniques to advance the goal of the MLUL. The uniformity goal under the MLUL “does not prohibit classifications within the district so long as they are reasonable.”

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