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Universal Holding Co. v. Township of North Bergen

Decided: March 31, 1959.


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


This action began as a complaint in the Chancery Division by a property owner to restrain the defendant municipality from taking steps to interfere with the use being made by plaintiff or its tenant of certain premises on 81st Street, North Bergen, as supposedly in violation of the local zoning ordinance, and for a declaration of the legality of the existing commercial use of the property under the ordinance as a proper nonconforming use. The defendant counterclaimed for an injunction against the continuance of the use as illegal. The trial court held the existing use was a valid nonconforming use and that the defendant was estopped to assert the contrary.

The property in question is improved by a large building, built in 1919, which occupies not only the land here concerned but also a larger adjoining parcel in the same proprietorship fronting on Bergenline Avenue, so as to form a rough L, with a parcel in the angle thereof, at the corner of 81st Street and Bergenline Avenue, owned by others.

Bergenline Avenue, a main north-south thoroughfare of North Bergen, is strip-zoned for business use under the local zoning ordinance to a depth of 100 feet on each side. Westerly thereof, the area is all zoned residential. Plaintiff's property as an entirety has a 100-foot frontage on the west side of Bergenline Avenue, between 81st and 82nd Streets, beginning 50 feet from the northwest corner of that avenue and 81st Street. The building extends westward from Bergenline Avenue for 123.9 feet along its entire frontage on that thoroughfare. But at a point 100 feet west of Bergenline Avenue its westernmost 23.9 feet juts south a distance of 50 feet to 81st Street. The land frontage on 81st Street is 24.9 feet. Thus the building is intersected by the boundary line between the 100-foot deep business zone on the west side of Bergenline Avenue and the residential zone lying directly west of the business zone.

When North Bergen's zoning ordinance was adopted in 1934 the entire building was used as a riding academy with a garage-type double door on 81st Street. About 1935 the building became a skating rink, and in 1936 or 1937, a supermarket. A second supermarket operator took over the building in 1938 and operated it as such until 1950. Plaintiff acquired title to the property in 1946. In 1950 the supermarket left and the property was vacant for a short time. In 1951 plaintiff obtained a municipal building permit to make alterations converting that part of the building fronting on Bergenline Avenue into six stores, each having a 16-foot frontage and extending west for 80 feet, and this was done. At the 80-foot depth plaintiff erected a concrete block partition which ran the 100-foot width of the building. Thus, of the remaining building area to the rear, a 20 by 100 foot portion lay in the business zone, and the remainder, 23.9 x 150 feet, in the residential zone, the whole forming a self-contained building unit with frontage only on 81st Street.

This rear building area was rented to Plastic Fashions, Inc. ("Plastic"), a manufacturer of handbags, from 1952 to 1957. The evidence indicates that Plastic's operations

comprised packaging, distributing, and, to a moderate extent, manufacturing. Plastic's lease expired in June 1957 and plaintiff then rented the rear area to the present occupant, Schwartz-Sniderman, Inc. ("Schwartz"), a jobber of embroidery products, and a third-party defendant herein. Schwartz engages in no manufacturing on the premises, but does receive, ship, store, package and distribute its products from this building. This is the use presently in controversy.

The old riding academy double door on 81st Street had apparently become dilapidated, so that when Plastic's occupancy began the door was replaced with a modern overhead door. Although the trial court found no evidence that the new door was larger than the old, several neighbors testified it was about two feet higher and a few feet wider. This testimony has some support from the photographs in the appendices, showing new brick above and on both sides of the door.

This litigation apparently had its genesis in complaints by 81st Street residents against the traffic tie-ups caused by the numerous truck deliveries and pickups involved in the Schwartz business -- all through the 81st Street entrance. Indisputably there is a great increase in the use made by Schwartz of the 81st Street entrance and the street itself over that of the riding academy, skating rink, and the supermarkets. The Plastic occupancy involved substantial trucking but the evidence indicates it was not as heavy and frequent as that attendant upon the Schwartz operations.


The principal issue mooted before the trial court was whether the portion of the building occupied by Schwartz is being devoted to a nonconforming use within the protection of N.J.S.A. 40:55-48. The trial court held in the affirmative. But we are constrained to disagree. Where forbidden by the zoning ordinance a substantial change from the kind of use in ...

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