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Township Committee of the Township of Washington v. Micai

A-3442-97T2, (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999) (Unpublished)

ZONING; AMBIGUITIES; ESTOPPEL—Where an official, in good faith, within the ambit of his duty, makes an erroneous but debatable ordinance interpretation, and a property owner, in like good faith, relies on that decision, the municipality and its land use boards are estopped from changing the interpretation.

In 1981, a municipality’s administrative officer for planning and zoning determined that parking refrigerated trucks on a particular homeowner’s property was an accessory use and that no application was necessary to conduct a business on the residential property. He so advised the homeowner. In 1984, the municipality’s zoning officer investigated a complaint that meat was being sold from the house but found no violation and wrote the homeowner’s counsel: “[t]he use of (one) parked business truck under the described circumstances does not constitute a violation of the code. The occasional parking of a second truck would technically not constitute a violation of code. If any expansion of the represented activity is contemplated, a prior application will have to be made to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a use variance requiring a site plan review. If any expansion takes place beyond what has been represented without variance approval, it would be considered a violation of the code. Unless circumstances warrant, no further administrative action is required.” In 1997, the municipality’s zoning board of adjustment ruled that the 1981 ordinance was ambiguous on it face, and therefore, the board would rely on the interpretation of the ordinance at the relevant time, i.e., 1981, as presented by the then Township Clerk and that therefore “the [h]ome occupation ... was accessory to the permitted residential use and therefore a permitted use.” The municipality filed suit to set aside the board’s determination and the lower court, while opining that the “home business is not an ancillary use” of the homeowner’s residential property, still held in favor of the homeowner. The lower court, with the Appellate Division’s approval, found that the issue was sufficiently debatable “so as to permit invocation of the doctrine of estoppel.” Citing earlier case law, estoppel can be found where “the administrative official [acting] in good faith and within the ambit of his duty makes an erroneous debatable interpretation of the ordinance and the property owner in like good faith relies thereon.”


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