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The Stop & Shop Supermarket Company v. Township of Millburn

A-6796-98T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)

ZONING; REVERSE SPOT ZONING—It is not necessary for a municipality to craft its zoning ordinance with mathematical nicety if any set of facts can reasonably be conceived to support the ordinance.

A supermarket company purchased real property formerly owned by a department store. The property was located along a busy road. Most of the road was situated in one municipality, but a twenty foot strip was located in an adjacent municipality. That twenty foot strip contained two access drives to the busy road and ran parallel to it. The owner sought to replace the existing building with a new building that would operate as a supermarket. At one time, the entire tract was located within a single township but then when the county proposed widening the busy road, the portion that constituted the widened part was transferred to the adjacent municipality. The road was never widened and the strip of land remained within the adjacent municipality. This also allowed the entire road, when widened, to remain wholly within a single county. The municipality within which the twenty foot strip of land was located later adopted some zoning ordinances, parts of which applied only to properties partially within the municipality and partially outside of the municipality. This interfered with the supermarket company’s development plans. Therefore, it challenged the facial validity of the zoning ordinance, essentially arguing that it constituted “reverse spot zoning” and was disparate treatment in violation of the equal protection clauses of the Constitutions of the United States and New Jersey. “Reverse spot zoning” occurs when a land use decision “arbitrarily singles out a particular parcel for different, less favorable treatment than its neighboring ones. The burden to show illegal “reverse spot zoning” occurs on the complaining party. Precedent instructed the Court that the size of the land or tracts involved is of no consequence when the ordinance affects all tracts of land located within a district. Even though the supermarket contended that the ordinance only affected its property, the lower court noted that at least nine properties were within the purview of the ordinance. Therefore, because the ordinance was applicable to the entire commercial district in question, it was not “reverse spot zoning. ... The constitutional principle of equal protection requires that the exercise of the power be reasonable and not arbitrary and that the means selected for the implementation of a policy bear a real and substantial relationship to that end.” On the other hand, only where “no rational basis exists would a court declare an ordinance invalid.” According to the Court, the purpose of the ordinance in question was to “control or rather inhibit greater traffic congestion on” the busy road. Although the ordinance applied only to businesses not wholly located within the municipality, the Court believed that so long as there was a reasonable basis, it was not necessary to craft an ordinance with “mathematical nicety” and the ordinance “must be upheld if any set of facts can reasonably be conceived to support it.” Therefore, in the Court’s view, the ordinance was rationally grounded and therefore was valid even in the face of a constitutional facial challenge.


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