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Scardigli v. Borough of Haddonfield Zoning Board of Adjustment

300 N.J. Super. 314, 692 A.2d 1012 (App. Div. 1997)

MUNICIPALITIES; ZONING —When a zoning board failed to object to a landowner’s sale of one of two adjacent undersized lots before expiration of the statute of limitations, it was estopped to deny a variance to build on the second of the undersized lots.

A zoning ordinance for the Borough of Haddonfield contained a minimum residential lot size requirement, with the exception that contiguous undersized lots under single ownership were considered to be one lot. An owner of two contiguous undersized lots sought a determination from the attorney for the Haddonfield Board of Adjustment whether she could sell the lots separately. The attorney discovered that despite the ordinance, the lots had been taxed separately, so he informed the owner that they could be sold separately, but that any purchaser of the undeveloped lot wishing to construct a house on it would need approval from the Board. The owner sold the developed lot without incident and later sold the vacant lot contingent on obtaining all necessary variances. The Board approved the variances and an adjacent homeowner sued. The Law Division estopped the Borough from denying the owner the right to sell the lots separately since she relied on the Board attorney’s letter. The judge also determined that the variances were minor and that granting them would neither create negative impact on the neighborhood nor violate the spirit and intent of the ordinance.

The Appellate Division found that the attorney lacked authority to issue an opinion interpreting the zoning ordinance that would bind any municipal agency, but estopped the Borough anyway since it never sought to set aside the sale of the developed lot before the statute of limitations expired. This failure to act effectively gave an official municipal view that the lots were separate and never merged. To hold otherwise would either leave the owner with an unusable lot or force her to sell it to an adjacent landowner, probably at forced sale prices. In addition to the failure of the municipality to treat the lots as one, the Court stated that where an owner has done nothing to destroy the separate identity of two lots (by selling them together, for example), there is no doctrine of merger, and buyers of each will have good title without further subdivision approval. The Court also held that “elemental fairness” for the bona fide purchaser of the developed lot required allowing the owner to sell the lots separately. As for one of the Board members who allegedly voted on the variance improperly, the Court held that it was irrelevant because it would not have changed the outcome. The Court remanded the case because the transcribed record of one of the hearings was incomplete and state statute requires a “verbatim recording of the proceedings.”


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