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Trinity Baptist Church v. Planning Board of Montville Township

A-0155-03T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

ZONING; CONFLICT OF INTEREST — The New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law prohibits any member of a planning board from acting on a matter in which he or she has a direct or indirect personal or financial interest.

A church owned property which it leased to a banking institution. The church and the bank applied to the municipality’s planning board for site approval and variances to construct a bank on the property. Operation of a bank was a permitted use in the zone in which the property was located. Several hearings took place on the application. During the hearings, counsel for the applicants requested that the municipality’s mayor, who was also a member of the planning board, recuse himself from participating in the hearings. Counsel asserted that the mayor had an indirect conflict of interest because his mother owned a condominium unit that was in close proximity to the subject property. The mayor refused to recuse himself on the basis that there was no conflict of interest just because his mother owned the property. During the course of the hearings, the mayor’s mother died and title to the condominium unit passed to a trust of which the mayor was the trustee and beneficiary. At the conclusion of the hearings, the planning board denied the application. The applicants then filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs challenging the board’s determination. They asserted that the board’s decision should be invalidated because of the mayor’s conflict of interest. The lower court held that the ownership interest in the condominium unit by the mayor’s mother, and thereafter by the trust, gave rise to a conflict of interest and the mayor should have recused himself. It held that the conflict of interest voided the board’s action and remanded the matter to the planning board for a new hearing to be conducted without the presence of the mayor. The lower court refrained from making a determination on the merits of the application on the basis that it was a matter within the discretion of the planning board. The planning board filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied. It then appealed the lower court’s ruling, contending that the mayor’s ownership interest in the condominium unit did not warrant his disqualification.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision. It held that the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law prohibits any member of a planning board from acting on a matter which he or she has a direct or indirect personal or financial interest in. It further held that common law requires a planning board member to disqualify him or herself when a conflict of interest may interfere with the impartial performance of his or her duties. Here, the Court found that a conflict of interest was present because the mayor’s mother owned a condominium unit so close to the subject property that she was required to receive notice of the site plan application by statute. It held that any party required to receive notice of a site plan or variance application by statute is presumed to have an interest in the matter. It further noted that during the course of the hearings, the mayor’s conflict of interest became more direct when he succeeded to beneficial ownership of the unit as a result of his mother’s death. The Court concluded that this constituted a sufficient conflict of interest which warranted the mayor’s disqualification from the application review.


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