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Hohl v. Township of Readington

Decided: May 7, 1962.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor and Haneman. For affirmance -- Justice Schettino. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.


The defendant Readington Township appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court, Law Division, declaring the Township's zoning ordinance "invalid insofar as it prohibits a trailer park or mobile home court on premises owned by the plaintiff," Charles Hohl. We certified the cause while it was pending in the Appellate Division.

In 1952 plaintiff bought a three-acre tract of land on the northerly side of U.S. Route 22 in Readington Township, Hunterdon County. The tract has a frontage of 136 feet on the highway, a depth of about 700 feet and a width of 234 feet at the rear. Since acquiring ownership, plaintiff has unsuccessfully sought a permit from the Township to operate a trailer park upon this land. His latest effort began in April 1960 when he applied for a permit under the 1955 zoning ordinance which allowed trailer parks in the highway business zone. The first 300 feet of plaintiff's land in from U.S. Route 22 were in that zone, the rear portion being in a residential zone. Among the uses

permitted in the highway business zone were: "Business establishments which serve transient clientele * * * [including] Motels, tourist homes and cabins * * * trailer courts * * *" None of these uses was permitted in residential zones. Since his property did not comply with certain requirements of the zoning ordinance, the plaintiff applied to the Board of Adjustment for variances. The Board denied the variances necessary for plaintiff to establish a trailer park. As a result he instituted this action in lieu of prerogative writ for a judgment compelling the Board to grant the necessary variances and directing the township to issue him an appropriate license. On February 10, 1961, before the trial was held, the township amended its zoning ordinance to delete "trailer courts" from the list of uses permitted within the highway business zone and added "trailer camps or trailer courts" to the list of uses prohibited in that zone. Since trailer courts were not permitted within the other zones, this amendment had the effect of excluding them throughout the township.

Plaintiff supplemented his complaint to challenge the zoning change of February 10, 1961, contending it was "arbitrary, capricious and unlawful in that the characteristics of said Township do not warrant such an amendment, nor do the characteristics of the surrounding property of plaintiff warrant such an amendment." During the course of the trial all of the counts of the complaint as supplemented, except those pertaining to the amendment of February 10, 1961, were either abandoned by the plaintiff or dismissed by the court and are not involved in this appeal.

At the trial there was testimony describing Readington Township in general and the uses surrounding plaintiff's land in particular. In area the township is the largest municipality in Hunterdon County, comprising 47.8 square miles. Its present population is about 6,100, this figure having doubled during the past decade. The township is [37 NJ Page 274] shaped somewhat like a triangle. The new alignment of Interstate Route 78 and U.S. Route 22 lies near the northern boundary. U.S. Route 202 is near the eastern boundary and U.S. Route 69 is a part of the western boundary. The nearest towns are Somerville to the east, Flemington to the south and Clinton to the west. The only population centers of any consequence within the township are the villages of Whitehouse and Whitehouse Station, situated opposite each other on U.S. Route 22 about two miles west of plaintiff's land, and the smaller villages of Three Bridges and Centerville situated along U.S. Route 202, about four or five miles south of plaintiff's land. There are about 1,800 one-family dwellings, the total number increasing by an average of 47 each year. There are two established trailer courts, one accommodating three trailers, the other 11 or 12. Three small industrial establishments are situated in the township. It is largely a rural area with most of the land actively devoted to agriculture or formerly farmed and now inactive under the federal soil bank program. Under the amended 1955 zoning ordinance in effect at the time of the trial, 95% of the land in the township was zoned residential, the minimum lot sizes in the three residential zones ranging from 30,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet. The remaining 5% of the land was divided into three zones, General Business, Industrial and Highway Business. New multi-family dwellings and apartment houses were prohibited throughout the township. Most of the nonresidential land is situated along U.S. Route 22 which runs for about five miles through the township. Plaintiff testified that in the vicinity of his land there are spread out along 4,000 feet on both sides of U.S. Route 22 several private homes, a real estate sales office, a swim club, two gas stations, a toy shop, a junkyard, a garage, two diners, a swimming pool sales outlet and a restaurant. He said these establishments are interspersed with a great amount of vacant land and that the homes are on large tracts.

Morton Lipschultz, a licensed engineer and land planning consultant called by the plaintiff, testified that he had designed a package sewage plant for plaintiff which would adequately handle any sanitary problems the proposed trailer park might present. He said a trailer park on plaintiff's land would be an attractive addition to the area, although he would not say that total exclusion of trailer courts could be characterized as "arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious." Other witnesses testified that the trailer industry had, in recent years, made great strides in constructing trailers which afforded many people desirable and attractive homes; that the most popular size of trailers today is 10 by 50 feet, and that most trailer dwellers are no longer transients but stay in the same location for extended periods of time and are active in community affairs. Plaintiff's expert, Isaac Bogert, testified that the proper lot size upon which a trailer should be placed is 50 by 60 feet.

Witnesses for the township testified trailers provide good living accommodations if the trailer courts are located in a suitable area, but that there is no such area within Readington Township. Several reasons were advanced, the most important being the township's desire to retain its character as a low-density living area and the unfavorable drainage conditions of the soil. James Swackhammer, Chairman of the Township Planning Board, testified that for the past three years the Board has been engaged in the preparation of a revised comprehensive zoning plan. The township introduced in evidence a letter dated January 23, 1961, from the Planning Board to the Township Committee. In the letter the Board stated it unanimously agreed "we do not desire to include trailers as a permitted use in our highway business zone" and recommended adoption of the amendment which was subsequently enacted by the Committee on February 10, 1961, and which is now challenged. Several reasons were given for the recommendation including the serious disposal and water supply problems, the inability of trailers to meet the minimum floor area requirements

applicable to other living units, and the poor land use which trailer courts constitute when compared with upgraded uses projected for land along the highways in the proposed revision. The Board concluded:

"In evaluating land use in our Township in our current study, the Planning Board is attempting to maintain in the Township the very beautiful character it currently has as one of the yet unspoiled rural areas in the state of New Jersey. In addition to our desire to maintain a beautiful and enjoyable character and environment for our residents, there is the very practical reality of desire to attract high type residential, business and light manufacturing use to our Township because of its current desirable character and the reasonable security that this may be maintained. This holds true not only for the interior portions of the town which are currently zoned for rural, agricultural, and residential use but also for the areas along U.S. Route No. 22 and No. 202. Here, although we are zoning primarily for good highway business and good commercial office manufacturing use, we are also making provisions for R-175 and R-250 residential use of this land when properly controlled. We feel this flexibility is reasonable since the precise future of the Township cannot be really predicted well at this time. Whether the ultimate development of the town finds our highway frontage primarily residential or primarily office manufacturing, it will, insofar as we are capable of guiding it, be high priced land with superior land use throughout. In light of these aims, we feel that the inclusion of an inferior land use such as a trailer park or trailer camp would be incompatible not only along the highways but in the residential areas as well."

Numerous photographs were introduced showing the characteristics of the land in the township. These depicted an open, attractive countryside, unspoiled and untouched by any urban movement. Mr. Swackhammer testified that as a result of the Board's studies, it has proposed changes in the uses permitted along U.S. Route 22; that a substantial proportion of the ...

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