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Spooner v. The Township of Millstone

A-1786-06T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES —When a court reviews a land use board’s decision, the denial of a variance is entitled to more deference than a grant because variances tend to impair sound zoning.

A property owner applied to its municipality’s planning board to subdivide a parcel of land into two lots. The property was in the municipality’s rural preservation zone, which had strict limitations on the types of homes that could be developed. The application, which also sought bulk variances, was denied because the proposed subdivisions would not have met the limitations imposed by the zoning ordinance. The property owner filed a complaint challenging the municipality’s decision, arguing the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The owners asked the court to set aside the decision aside, and also asked the court to invalidate portions of the municipality’s zoning ordinance. The lower court found the board’s decision to be arbitrary and capricious and also found the owner was entitled to relief under the ordinance’s grandfather clause. It instructed the municipality to grant the owner’s application for subdivision and bulk variances. The municipality appealed on the grounds that the lower court failed to apply the proper standard of review, and failed to give the board a presumption of validity, instead substituting its own judgment.

The Appellate Division agreed with the municipality and reversed and reinstated the board’s decision. It first noted that a planning board’s decision is entitled to deference and the denial of a variance is entitled to more deference than a grant because variances “tend to impair sound zoning.” If a decision is founded on adequate evidence and is in accordance with statutory criteria, it should be sustained. The court’s job is to determine whether a land use board followed statutory guidelines and properly exercised its discretion. Here, the board’s decision to deny the owner’s application was neither arbitrary nor capricious because the record supported the conclusion that the subdivision would not benefit the community, and instead would only benefit the owner. Additionally, the record supported the board’s determination that the variance could not be granted without causing harm to the public good.

Next, the Court noted that the lower court made credibility findings in accepting an expert’s testimony over the conclusions made by the board. In doing so, the lower court applied the wrong standard of review. Additionally, according to the Appellate Division, the lower court had substituted its own judgment for that of the board in determining the owners were entitled to relief under the grandfather clause. It rejected the lower court’s finding that the deficiencies created by allowing the variances were de minimis and not a bar to the grandfathering clause. Instead, the Court agreed with the board that the grandfathering clause did not apply because the subdivisions would not meet the required criteria.

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