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St. Joseph’s Korean Catholic Church v. The Zoning Board of Adjustment of the Borough of Rockleigh

A-6860-03T2, A-6980-03T2, and A-6982-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES—A zoning board does not treat applicants disparately or arbitrarily when it grants variances to a conforming user and denies similar variances to a non-permitted user seeking a use variance.

A church applied for a special use variance to build a house of worship with accessory uses within a business transitional zone. The zoning board denied the application and the church sued. The lower court reversed the zoning board’s decision, finding that the zoning board acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it denied the church’s application. The zoning board appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the lower court judge failed to give the zoning board the considerable deference to which it was entitled.

The property upon which the church proposed to build was within the municipality’s business transitional zone which was designated for office buildings, but not for retail or manufacturing purposes. The property was the only property within the zone. The Court noted that, since the church needed a special variance in order to build a house of worship in the business transitional zone, it needed to establish both “positive” and “negative” criteria. “Positive” criteria are met by demonstrating that there is an inherently beneficial use that serves the public good. “Negative” criteria are met by establishing that the project’s benefits outweigh any detriments to the public good and do not frustrate the purposes of the municipality’s master plan. The Court noted that the zoning board conceded that the church was an inherently beneficial use. With respect to the negative criteria, the Court noted that the business transition zone was established to accommodate an office building that would operate during weekly business hours and would generate little or no traffic or activity on weekends. Therefore, the church’s proposed use of the property was contrary to the municipal purpose in establishing the business transitional zone, since most of the church’s activity would take place on the weekends and would result in heavy traffic activity. According to the Court, a minimal increase in traffic would not outweigh an inherently beneficial use. Here, however, the lower court did not credit the zoning board’s expert who determined that having a church at that location would result in substantially more traffic on weekends than what would be generated if an office building were located on the property. Also according to the Court, a zoning board should consider whether traffic and parking issues can be ameliorated by the imposition of reasonable conditions. In that regard, it found that this particular zoning board did, in fact, weigh the possibility of imposing reasonable conditions.

The property was located on a county road. There was no parking close enough to the property to address parking concerns if the church became filled to capacity on weekends. That was an example of why the Court found that the lower court’s decision did not give proper deference to the zoning board’s carefully reasoned decision. It also found that the lower court’s decision was based on a prior application the board had approved (for the same property) for the construction of an office building. The Court also disagreed with the lower court’s finding that because the office building project required similar variances to those requested by the church, the zoning board’s decision not to grant the church’s application had to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. It noted that the lower court failed to recognize that the office building was a permitted use within the business transition zone (which was specifically created for that type of use), whereas the church was a non-permitted use and would substantially increase traffic burdens.


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