Smith v. Township of Franklin

A-6558-97T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: February 25, 2000

ZONING—The fact that a municipality could have drawn its zoning lines differently, does not render arbitrary or capricious the inclusion within a zone of land that matches the criteria of an appropriately comprehensive scheme.

A landowner challenged a portion of a zoning ordinance that had the effect of increasing the minimum lot size for residential development from one and one-half acre to five-acres. This change was part of a comprehensive rezoning which established a rural conservation (RC) zone. Among other things, the landowner contended that a “transition” zone should have been created for its property as a bridge between the RC zone and a higher-density “village residential zone” to the north. Such a zone would maintain the one-and-one-half acre zone which would be consistent with the subdivision approvals under the prior zoning ordinances for neighboring properties. Further, the landowner contended that, as it affected the property, the zoning change constituted invalid reverse spot zoning. In response, the municipality maintained that judicial creation of a transition zone would not only be unwarranted, but, if enacted by the municipality, it would itself constitute spot zoning. The land was located within a rural farming area. Six years earlier, the municipality adopted a new Master Plan. At that time, over seventy-five percent of the municipality’s area was assessed as farmland and another 11.5 percent was vacant. The Land Use Element of the Master Plan called for reducing residential densities throughout unsewered portions of the municipality to respond to the objective of protecting groundwater and surface water quality and to better accomplish the goals of rural conservation, agricultural retention, and the protection of scenic attributes. That Master Plan described the new RC district as one that had been designed to address those goals. The Court found the zoning ordinance to be consistent with the Master Plan and the landowner admitted that its challenge was not to the ordinance itself, but only to the inclusion of its property within the zone. In support of that argument, the landowner pointed to the adjacent properties to support the argument that the RC zoning isolated its property and, therefore, was arbitrary as applied. According to the Court, “[i]t is black letter law that a zoning ordinance carries a presumption of validity.” An objector’s burden is to “show affirmatively that the ordinance bears no reasonable relationship to the public health, morals, safety or welfare.” The Court did not feel that the landowner had met that burden. With respect to the claim of reverse spot zoning, which is where property has been “downzoned to a lower density or intensity of use with greater restriction imposed on the land rezoned than neighboring properties,” the Court examined the local zoning map. It found that the map clearly demonstrated that a substantial majority of the acreage in the municipality fell within the RC zone. This, together with other facts, satisfied the Court that the land in question fell within an appropriately comprehensive scheme and had not been subjected to reverse spot zoning. It was not the test whether the municipality could have drawn the lines of the RC zone differently. The landowner’s property was found not to have been singled out by the municipality to bear a burden which should have been borne by the public as a whole.