Spruce Manor Enterprises v. Borough of Bellmawr

315 N.J. Super. 286, 717 A.2d 1008 (Law Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: June 11, 1998

MUNICIPALITIES; REDEVELOPMENT—The fact that an existing property does not meet current design standards does not, in and of itself, render it an area in need of redevelopment.

A municipal planning board determined that a 120 unit apartment complex was located in an area in need of redevelopment because it did not meet current design standards. The apartment complex was approximately 30 years old and was constructed in accordance with design standards then applicable for such complexes. There was substantial testimony that the condition of the apartments was satisfactory or good. All of the deficiencies noted in a multiple dwelling inspection had been corrected. In fact, the complex had been issued a certificate attesting that it was in compliance with the regulations for the maintenance of hotels and multiple dwellings. At the planning board hearing, there was vague criticism of the conditions at the complex based upon superficial observations by certain municipal officials. Without testing, the municipal construction official testified that the complex seemed to be dim and that the ventilation seemed to be inadequate. No summonses had ever been issued for the violation of any municipal ordinances relating to lighting or ventilation. The municipal fire chief testified that some apartment units appeared to be occupied by numerous persons, but this observation was not based on a systematic inspection and there were no investigations as to whether the persons observed were residents or guests. In addition, no complaints of overcrowding ever filed. Even though certificates of occupancy were required before a new tenant moved into a unit, there were no unissued certificates of occupancy. The only outstanding violation was the lack of installed fire doors, but by the time the planning board passed its resolution, the fire doors were properly in place. In fact, the planning board attorney stipulated that the property was not “in bad shape.”

In essence, the board felt that because the complex did not meet current design standards, it was obsolete. For example, the site had approximately 40 units per acre, whereas the current standard was 10 units per acre. Similarly, the site had 102 parking spaces whereas the current standards required 180 to 240 parking spots. The units were not handicap accessible and the complex did not have the on-site recreational facilities required by the current ordinance. The apartment owner presented a witness who was both an architect and a planner. That witness testified that the buildings were not unsafe, unsanitary or dilapidated. The apartment owner’s expert noted that the building was not substandard under the standards used by the Department of Community Affairs. While he acknowledged that the complex would not meet today’s design standards, he concluded that the site was not obsolete or substandard.

The Appellate Division recognized that the actions of a planning board and a municipal governing body are presumed valid. Consequently, for the property owner to get the Court to set aside the governing body’s decision, it needed to demonstrate that the determination was arbitrary, capricious or contrary to law. When the Court reviewed the testimony and found that there was no substantiation for the observations made by the municipality’s witnesses, it concluded that the planning board’s finding of overcrowding was contrary to the evidence and was arbitrary and capricious. Furthermore, even if the complex was overcrowded, the Court ruled that there must be a demonstration that the overcrowding was detrimental to the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community. With the respect to the contention that because the apartment complex did not comply with current design standards regarding units per acre, number of parking spaces, recreational facilities, and handicap accessability, the Court noted that there is a different standard of review. Because the interpretation of an ordinance or a statute is a legal matter in which an administrative agency has no particular skills superior to those of a court, the Court gave no deference to the findings of the planning board. As to whether the apartment complex was obsolete, the Court looked at the dictionary definition as meaning “no longer active or in use, disused, or neglected.” Based on the evidence, the Court could not conclude that the building was obsolete because the building was inhabited and met current standards regarding habitability. Furthermore, the determination of whether an apartment complex is substandard must be made with reference to the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law. Here, the complex complied with the regulations issued under that law and could not be said to be substandard. In conclusion, the Court found that the fact that design standards have changed cannot, in and of itself, render an apartment complex an area in need of redevelopment under the law.