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Stein v. Planning Board of the Borough of Upper Saddle River

A-3340-06T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

ZONING; SUBDIVISIONS — For appropriate reasons, courts may allow a party that previously agreed to including conditions within a variance grant later challenge the condition if good cause is shown, if changed circumstances are shown to have occurred, or if it is found to be in the interest of justice.

A landowner owned a tract of land that did not abut a public street but was accessible by way of an easement that led from the street to the landowner’s home. The easement also provided access for five other lots, one of which was previously subdivided from the landowner’s property. When the landowner sought to further subdivide the property, he obtained a variance from a municipal board. The variance was necessary because state law does not allow the construction of any structures on land that does not abut a street. The variance was granted by the board which found that access to the lots abutting the easement would not be impeded and that there would be little detriment to the other property owners who lived adjacent to the easement. The board also found that granting the variance would not impair the intent and purpose of the zoning plan, noting that the landowner, who owned the largest tract of land along the easement, could not otherwise subdivide its property. The board attached conditions requiring maintenance of the easement, but also attached a condition that the property could not be further subdivided. This restriction was to be written into the deed for the landowner’s property. Neither the landowner nor any objectors appealed the board’s decision.

Within twenty years after the granting of the variance, the landowner sought to again subdivide his property and sell one lot. Following testimony by expert witnesses for both the landowner and for opponents of the new subdivision, the board denied the landowner’s request. The board found the testimony of landowner’s expert to be credible, but determined that it did not adequately address the condition that no future subdivisions were to have been made. The board also found that there was no coercion on the landowner to accept that condition. The landowner subsequently brought an action challenging the board’s decision. The lower court dismissed the landowner’s claims, finding that the condition was legal, that the landowner, and that the board did not exceed its authority. The lower court also found that the landowner was estopped from seeking a relaxation of the variance since the forty-five day limit for challenging the board’s initial decision had long since passed.

On an appeal brought by the landowner, the Appellate Division recited that a municipal board’s decision is presumed to be valid unless found to be arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or if there was an abuse if discretion. On the other hand, it disagreed with the lower court’s finding that the landowner was estopped from challenging the condition of the variance. The Court pointed out that in a number of instances, courts have allowed parties that agreed to a condition in a variance to later challenge the condition if good cause is shown, if changed circumstances are shown to have occurred, or if it is found to be in the interest of justice. It pointed to factors used to determine the validity of a condition such as being consistent with the purpose of the zoning ordinances, being in the public interest, and not being unnecessarily burdensome to a property owner. In examining whether the condition was an unnecessary burden to the property owner, the Court pointed out that to establish the presence of such a factor requires a showing of more than disappointment or inconvenience resulting from a board’s failure to grant relief.

In this case, the Court found that the board’s decision to uphold the condition was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. It determined that the board’s decision to apply the condition was based on ample evidence and that the board’s refusal to eliminate the condition was rationally related to safety concerns regarding the easement. It also found that the decision served the purpose of protecting health and safety. The Court rejected the landowner’s contentions that he was coerced into accepting the condition at the time it was applied.


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