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Stonehill v. Magee Family Trust

A-3151-08T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ZONING; VARIANCES — A grant of dimensional variances must benefit the community by representing a better zoning alternative for the property, and an earlier merger of lots does not prohibit a later subdivision application or hinder an applicant needing to demonstrate its entitlement to dimensional variances.

A trust purchased a corner parcel of real property located within a residential zone. The parcel consisted of two contiguous lots that had been merged forty years earlier when prior owners conveyed the land as a single parcel to one of the trust’s predecessors-in-title. The merged lot conformed to all applicable zoning regulations; however a nonconforming structure, a dwelling, was located on the property. The trust filed an application with the municipal planning board to obtain minor subdivision approval in order to divide the property into two undersized lots, each lot to contain a dwelling. At the planning board hearing, the trust’s planning expert testified that almost ninety percent of the lots in the neighborhood contained a dwelling and were similar in size and dimension to the proposed subdivided lots – fifty feet by 120 feet. If subdivided, the lot with the nonconforming structure would also require a side yard setback variance. The planner concluded that the proposed development was appropriate for the neighborhood. Various board members made site visits to the property and one board member confirmed the proposed subdivision would not result in a property different from the majority of the surrounding parcels in the area.

The board granted the subdivision application and related variances. Subsequently, a community resident filed suit seeking to reverse the board’s action and enjoin the trust from conveying the subdivided lots. The lower court, after trial, affirmed the decision of the board, finding the board had made a sufficient analysis of the application in concluding the two lots which were proposed were a better choice than strict compliance with the zoning requirements for the residential zone.

The community resident appealed again, but the Appellate Division affirmed, saying that a grant of dimensional variances must benefit the community by representing a better zoning alternative for the property. In this case, the board concluded the application would foster an ongoing zoning pattern. The Court remarked that local land use agencies are the primary authority to make land use determinations as they are thoroughly familiar with their community’s characteristics. It also concluded that the earlier merger of the lots did not prohibit a later subdivision application or hinder an applicant needing to demonstrate its entitlement to dimensional variances.


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