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Marini v. Borough of Wanaque

Decided: July 5, 1955.

JOHN MARINI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE BOROUGH OF WANAQUE, THOMAS A. JORDAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, J.A.D.

Conford

This is an action in lieu of prerogative writ and for incidental injunctive relief, brought by a citizen and taxpayer. Plaintiff's complaint is that the defendant Jordan, building inspector of the respondent borough, illegally issued a building permit to the respondents Gordon for the conversion of a barn and garage on their property adjoining that of plaintiff into a two-family dwelling; and that after the completion of the conversion he wrongfully issued a certificate of occupancy of the structure. The assertion is that the building ordinance of the borough was violated in some dozen respects. Somewhat in excess of $7,500 was expended by the Gordons on the conversion. The defendants deny the violations, impugn plaintiff's status to maintain the action, attack the sufficiency of the proofs and plead laches and the 30-day limitation period fixed for such actions by R.R. 4:88-15. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's case the trial judge granted judgment dismissing the action on the basis of the insufficiency of the proofs, laches and limitations. Hence this appeal.

Plaintiff's case was substantially based upon his own testimony as to violations and his interpretation of the municipal ordinances. He is a graduate mechanical engineer but admittedly not qualified as a construction expert.

The Gordon property is an irregular parcel of land on the southeast corner of Ringwood Avenue and Railroad Avenue in Wanaque. It has 150 feet of frontage on Railroad Avenue and 178 feet on Ringwood Avenue. The Gordon home is set well back on the southwesterly portion of the property. There is a two-car garage on the southeasterly corner. At some undetermined earlier period the easterly 50 feet of this tract was owned by others and for many years there stood there, close to the street line, a two-story structure described as a barn and garage. The conversion of this building is the present bone of contention. The said parcel is now integral with the Gordons' holdings. There is also a two-story building on the southeast corner of the tract, with dwellings for two families and two stores. Still another barn on the property,

near the barn and garage in question, was torn down prior to institution of this action.

We have concluded the judgment should be affirmed on grounds of limitations and laches. But a passing survey of the objections raised by plaintiff will show they are in most instances unfounded or not adequately substantiated. The respondent borough has no zoning ordinance but, on September 17, 1952, it adopted a building ordinance. Section 1 thereof incorporated by reference the "Abridged Building Code" and the "Basic Building Code," 1950 editions, approved by the Building Officials Conference of America, Inc. on November 2, 1949. These codes contain, respectively, 118 and 344 closely printed pages. Section 3 of the ordinance purported to establish districts of fire limits. The most serious charge made by plaintiff is that the construction of a frame dwelling is not permitted within a fire district and that the subject structure is in fire district No. 2. But in this respect we find the ordinance void for vagueness. There are no metes and bounds descriptions or other precise circumscription of the areas of the districts. The purported descriptions are uncertain and inexact. The ordinance therefore has no legal efficacy in this behalf. Central R. Co. of New Jersey v. Elizabeth , 70 N.J.L. 578, 579, 580 (Sup. Ct. 1904). An ordinance restricting the use of private property will be strictly construed. 6 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (3 rd ed. 1949), ยง 20.51, p. 127.

It is charged that the building has no direct exit to the street. We read the code to make this requirement applicable only to business structures. The foundation walls are said not to go below frost line as required. There was no proof to that effect other than plaintiff's unqualified conclusion. The witness' description of the allegedly insufficient width of the foundation walls was, "ten inches, as far as I have been able to find out." The assertion that there was a prohibited boiler room below an exitway was supported only by speculative conclusions from outside observations. A charge that there is a violation in that the structure is within three feet of a lot line is premised on the assumption that

a line of former ownership is the lot line applicable. There is no engineering survey in evidence showing any lot line. Plaintiff made a sketch of his own based on monuments identified only by hearsay. Passing this, however, the codes do not define lots or lot lines. Ordinances which refer to lots generally define them. They should do so as the term "lot" has variable meanings. See Corden v. Zoning Board of Appeals , 131 Conn. 654, 41 A. 2 d 912, 915, 916, 159 A.L.R. 849 (Sup. Ct. Err. 1945). It is sometimes understood as a contiguous area in one ownership. Id., cf. Lamb v. A.D. McKee, Inc. , 10 N.J. Misc. 649 (Sup. Ct. 1932); Potter v. City of Orange , 62 N.J.L. 192, 195 (Sup. Ct. 1898). In that sense the line plaintiff refers to is not a lot line as the Gordons hold on both sides of it. Moreover, no official or other plat of record showing such a lot was proven. An objection concerning a 30-foot setback line is unwarranted, the setback provision having been adopted after the construction work here involved was finished. There may be technical violations in other respects, but the proofs are not satisfactory, at best.

We prefer to rest our affirmance on the lateness of the action here instituted by plaintiff. The building permit for this work was issued February 8, 1954. The record is silent as to the plans, if any, upon which it issued. Presumably, however, the municipal record would show it was for the conversion job here done. Actual construction work began the latter part of February or the beginning of March 1954. Plaintiff appeared before the mayor and council on March 10 to complain about activities on the Gordon property, he says only insofar as a proposed subdivision of the property was concerned. He had also previously complained to the mayor about the Gordons. He observed the construction work going on at the premises and that building material was being brought in and out of the structure in February and March. He admitted he knew then that "something" was being done with the building but said he did not know exactly what. He saw the building permit there about the beginning of March. But he says he didn't read it or become

informed that a permit had issued until "the latter part of March" when "I went up to the Borough Clerk's office and I asked to see a permit and I was shown the permit." On April 30, 1954 the building inspector issued a temporary certificate ...


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