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The Salt & Light Company, Inc. v. Willingboro Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

423 N.J. Super. 282, 32 A.3d 225 (App. Div. 2011)

ZONING; VARIANCES — Although transitional housing for the homeless is an inherently beneficial use and thus satisfies the positive zoning criteria, if such housing only better serves homeless families and provides no more than a marginal public benefit, a zoning board may properly reject a use variance request.

A non-profit organization that provided transitional housing for homeless families applied for a variance to construct a two-family duplex in a zoning district where only single-family homes were permitted. During the hearing, the organization’s executive director testified that a duplex would serve more families since there were more single-parent homeless families with two or three children than there were even larger two-parent homeless families. Therefore, according to him, a duplex would better serve the needs of the homeless by making two transitional residences available, as opposed to one. In addition, the executive director claimed that because the duplex was geared toward smaller families, the duplex would have the capacity to house the same number of people as a single-family transitional house. On that basis, he argued that there would be no detriment to the zoning plan. Neighbors objected to the proposal, contending that the duplex would conflict with the current development of the neighborhood for single-family residences. The zoning board denied the variance on the grounds that the organization failed to satisfy either the positive or negative criteria required for a zoning variance.

The organization appealed and the lower court reversed, finding that transitional housing for the homeless is an inherently beneficial use that satisfies the positive criteria. It also concluded that the negative criteria were satisfied. The lower court rejected the zoning board’s determination that constructing a duplex in what was otherwise a single-family neighborhood would substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zoning plan and ordinance. It noted that the there was no evidence of increased density, visual impairment or diminishment in property values aside from the fact that this would be a two-family unit. Then, the zoning board appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling, agreeing with the lower court’s finding that the construction of a duplex to create transitional housing for homeless families was an inherently beneficial use that satisfied the positive criteria needed for a variance. On the other hand, the Court noted that one of the factors to consider in determining whether the negative criteria are met is the public interest at stake. It noted that while the duplex unit would be an inherently beneficial use, it would provide only a marginally greater public benefit than would a single-family transitional home. It would house the same number of people as a single-family transitional house. So, the only public benefit derived would be to better serve the current population of homeless families.

The next step in the analysis required looking at the detrimental effect a project would have if a variance were granted. In this case, the construction of a duplex home would conflict with the single-family zoning in the neighborhood. The Court noted that the neighborhood was completely built out with single-family houses on smaller lots. Under these circumstances, the construction of a duplex home would have had a significant detrimental effect on the neighborhood.

The last step required is to weigh the positive and negative criteria and to determine if, on balance, granting the variance would cause a substantial detriment to the public good. The zoning board had determined that the public benefit was outweighed by the detrimental effect upon the integrity of the zoning plan. It concluded that constructing a duplex home in the middle of a neighborhood containing only single-family homes would be a substantial detriment to the neighborhood. Here, the Court found that the zoning board’s determination that the negative criteria were not met was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Therefore, it reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the zoning board’s denial.


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