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Sartoga v. Borough of West Paterson

A-6141-02T3 and A-6325-02T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

ZONING; COAH; MUNICIPAL ORDINANCES —Just because a municipal zoning ordinance has been approved by the Council on Affordable Housing does not mean it is presumed to be valid or in conformance with the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law.

A land developer owned two contiguous properties located in two separate municipalities. One of the municipalities approved a plan to build one hundred and thirty residential units on the property, several of which would be set aside for low and moderate income housing. The municipality presented its development plan to the Council of Affordable Housing (COAH). COAH approved the plan pursuant to the New Jersey Fair Housing Act. The municipality then adopted a zoning ordinance permitting construction. The neighboring municipality and property owners who owned land near the proposed development filed an action challenging the validity of the other municipality’s zoning ordinance. The adopting municipality moved for summary judgment. The lower court ruled that the ordinance was valid because it had previously been approved by COAH and granted summary judgment in favor of the adopting municipality.

The neighboring municipality and property owners appealed. The Appellate Division held that the lower court erred in determining that the ordinance was valid solely because it was approved by COAH. It held that the lower court should have determined whether the ordinance complied with the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). As a result, it remanded the case to the lower court for trial. After trial, the lower court upheld the ordinance, finding that it was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. The neighboring municipality and property owners appealed again, asserting that the lower court erred in not deciding whether the ordinance complied with MLUL as the Appellate Division had ordered.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling. It rejected the neighboring municipality’s and property owners’ contention that the lower court did not determine whether the ordinance complied with the MLUL. It discussed the goals of the MLUL which are to: 1) establish appropriate population densities that will contribute to the well-being of communities; 2) preserve the environment; 3) provide safety from fire and other disasters; and 4) provide affordable housing. The Court found that an ordinance may not be held valid simply because it provides affordable housing. To be valid, an ordinance cannot conflict with any of the goals of the MLUL. The Court found that the lower court appropriately considered all of the goals of the MLUL in ruling that this municipality’s ordinance was valid. It also rejected the neighboring municipality’s and property owners’ contention that the lower court erred in requiring them to prove that the ordinance was invalid. The Court held that a zoning ordinance is presumed valid. This presumption can be overcome only by a showing that a zoning ordinance is clearly arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or contrary to the fundamental principles of zoning, but the party challenging an ordinance always has the burden of proof. Therefore, the burden was correctly placed on the neighboring municipality and property owners.


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