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Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel

Decided: May 1, 1972.


Martino, A.j.s.c.


Plaintiff's herein consist of corporate entities and certain individuals, resident and nonresident, who seek declaratory and injunctive relief against a municipality's zoning ordinance. The right of the corporate entities to bring the action raises a question of qualification to do so, but since certain individual plaintiffs are township residents their right to sue will permit the court to dispose of the issue raised without a determination of the right to sue raised against the other plaintiffs.

The factual situation as it appears as to the resident plaintiffs clearly indicates one of them has moved into a house which was originally used as a summer quarters for a summer camp. The electrical wiring is in an exposed condition and she often gets shocks from the outlets; one space heater by the front door provides inadequate intermittent heat and she must use the gas stove to provide sufficient heat; cold air comes through the windows; drains do not work on occasion and the cesspool backs up into the toilet. She was told that the county board of health and the local building inspector want to be advised when she leaves so that they can "post" the house as unfit for human habitation. She has two children, ages four and two, and receives $282 a month from the Welfare Department. In 1969 the planning board of defendant township recommended blighted area treatment for the area in which she lives.

Another resident with two children and two grandchildren, a widow, lives in an area also recommended for blighted area treatment by the planning board. The dwelling in which she lives was the subject of the first receivership action brought in this State under the new Receivership Law -- N.J.S.A. 2A:42-85 et seq. For five years she and her family had been living in the house without any indoor plumbing or hot or cold running water. As a result of the court proceedings the house was put in receivership and repairs ordered. As a result her toilet is now functional and she has hot and cold running water. However, insufficient funds are available to repair a leaking roof, plaster continues

to fall, the stove is broken, pipes leak in bathroom, the house is infected with vermin. She has attempted to find other quarters in Mount Laurel, but is unable to do so because of her present income. Her total annual income is $6,000.

Another plaintiff has lived with her husband and seven children in defendant township for 20 years. The house is old and crowded and the area is surrounded by industrial uses. She was unable to give the age of the building, although she has lived in it 20 years.

Defendant township stipulated that three other persons who are party plaintiffs were former residents of Mount Laurel but were forced to move to adjoining municipalities. One couple had been living in a converted chicken coop; the cesspool kept backing up and the quarters were infected with vermin. This couple was forced to move in 1970. Another plaintiff was born in defendant township but was forced to move to Camden. The family had lived in a structure in Mount Laurel called "Diamond Apts." Their quarters were heated by a single kerosene heater; there was little or no hot water; the cesspool backed up and the place was infected with vermin. The family consisted of a husband and wife and four children. Another plaintiff, separated from her husband, was forced to move to Camden because the house she and her four children lived in while a resident of Mount Laurel had ceilings that were cracked and opened. A coal furnace with air vents on the first floor heated the entire house. Water lines continually became frozen; the cesspool kept filling up and backing up.

Testimony has indicated that in defendant municipality the minimum building costs of a single-family home is approximately $23,000. This would be the cost of the home completely bare, built on nonunion wages. Testimony further revealed that such a home built at union wage and including minimal amenities would cost 10% to 20% more. This would result in an expense for a single-family home that would not qualify for federal subsidized programs

within the reach of the resident plaintiffs herein neglected. Over the years defendant municipality has acted affirmatively to control development and to attract a selective type of growth. These plans were financed with state and federal funds. The township has consistently excluded trailers or mobile homes from its confines. Multi-family uses were generally prohibited as early as 1954 in the local ordinances and the amendments which followed.

While plaintiffs' testimony referred to clearly indicates the neglect of defendant municipality as to them, the suit by these individuals who appear of record is proposed as a class action for the benefit of many others who, it is alleged and not disputed, suffer from the same substandard type of housing accommodations and reside in defendant municipality.

Under certain factual circumstances our Supreme Court has upheld zoning ordinances which require minimum interior floor space, Lionshead Lake Inc. v. Wayne Tp. , 10 N.J. 165 (1952), app. dism. 344 U.S. 919, 73 S. Ct. 386, 97 L. Ed. 708 (1953); which limit lot sizes for a single-family unit to five acres, Fischer v. Bedminster Tp. , 11 N.J. 194 (1952); which absolutely prohibit the construction of any additional multi-family units, Fanale v. Hasbrouck Heights , 26 N.J. 320 (1958); which prohibit the use of mobile homes on an individual lot, Napierkowski v. Gloucester Tp. , 29 N.J. 481 (1959), and which absolutely prohibit all mobile-home parks from a township, Vickers v. Gloucester Tp. Committee , 37 N.J. 232 (1962), cert. den. 371 U.S. 233, 83 S. Ct. 326, 9 L. Ed. 2d 495 (1963).

Plaintiffs do not quarrel with the above-mentioned cases and, for the purpose of argument herein, are not suggesting that they be overruled. They maintain that, if anything, these cases clearly enumerate judicial standards which mandate that they prevail in the instant case. Following the Lionshead case, which will be discussed infra , our court in Pierro v. Baxendale , 20 N.J. 17 (1955), aptly noted:

We are aware of the extensive academic discussion following the decisions in the Lionshead and Bedminster cases, supra , and the suggestion that the very broad principles which they embody may intensify dangers of economic segregation * * *. In the light of existing population and land conditions within our State these powers may fairly be exercised without in anywise endangering the needs or reasonable expectations of any segments of our people. If and when conditions change, alterations in zoning restrictions and pertinent legislative and judicial attitudes need not be long delayed [at 29; emphasis added]

In defendant township multi-family dwellings are only permitted on a farm for a farmer, a member of the farmer's family, or persons employed by the farmer, provided the multiple-family dwelling is not closer than 200 feet from the property boundary line.

Minutes of various township committee meetings expressing the attitudes of the members of the governing body were introduced into evidence. Early in 1968 the mayor, when a discussion arose as to low-income housing, stated it was the intention of the township committee to take care of the people of Mount Laurel Township but not make any area of Mount Laurel a home for the county. A committeeman added that it was the intent of the township to clear out substandard housing in the area and thereby get better citizens. At a later meeting of the township committee in 1969 a variance to permit multi-family dwelling units was rejected because the committee did not see a need for such construction. At a meeting in 1970 a committeeman, during a discussion of homes being run down and worthless, indicated that the policy was to wait until these homes were vacant before the township took action, "because if these people are put out on the streets they do not have another place to go." At another meeting in September 1970 a township committeeman, when referring to pressure from the Federal and State Governments to encourage low-cost housing, retorted that their most useful function was to evaluate and screen away all but the most beneficial plans. He added, "We must be selective as possible -- approving

only those applications which are sound in all respects -- We can approve only those development plans which will provide direct and substantial benefits to our taxpayers." (Emphasis added) All through the various admissions permitted to be introduced into evidence, the evidence clearly indicates the attitude of developers who proposed various developments which were not concerned with people of low incomes. Every proposal made leaned in the direction of homes for only those of high income.

A research specialist and planning attorney, who was a consultant to the Division of State and Regional Planning, Department of Community Affairs, and a reporter to the State Land Use Revision Commission charged with revising the State's enabling legislation regarding planning and zoning in New Jersey, as well as counsel to Governor Cahill's Housing Task Force Committee, called by defendant municipality as one of its experts, categorically stated that the lack of permissible multi-family provisions in the zoning ordinance was a very good indication that low-income families were not being provided for. While he indicated that Burlington County, as a part of the Camden region, had a possibility of 45,000 multiple-family units under existing ordinances, it must be conceded that under our present enabling statute each municipality now controls its own zoning destiny.

Another expert witness employed by defendant municipality indicated that 66% of the township is vacant land. In the R-1 zone, which is the district having the lowest zoning category, viz., 9,375 square feet, there is currently 928 acres of vacant land available for development. This witness, a planner for defendant township for the past 2 I/2 years, conceded that nothing to his knowledge has been done to re-house the residents living in substandard dwellings in that community. He also conceded that he knew of no standard housing in defendant township available for residents on welfare; that people are living in substandard housing because the municipality will not condemn, inasmuch

as our Relocation Law, N.J.S.A. 20:4-1 to 22, would require that these residents be otherwise located.

The effect of this practice would account for the photographic exhibits, which indicate the deplorable facilities now tenanted by residents of the township.

In James v. Valtierra , 402 U.S. 137, 91 S. Ct. 1331, 28 L. Ed. 2d 678 (1971), involving a California constitutional provision which required that all public housing proposals be submitted to a referendum, the court upheld the right to referendum. However, the reason was that the referendum itself did not on its face socially discriminate. In Hunter v. Erickson , 393 U.S. 385, 89 S. Ct. 557, 21 L. Ed. 2d 616 (1969), the same court invalidated a city charter which required all fair housing ordinances to be submitted to a referendum.

"The States, of course, are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause from discriminating between 'rich' and 'poor' as such in the formulation and application of their laws." Douglas v. California , 372 U.S. 353, 361, 83 S. Ct. 814, 818, 819, 9 L. Ed. 2d 811 (1963), cited by Justice Marshall, with Justice Brennan and Justice Blackmun concurring, in the dissent in James v. Valtierra, supra. Significantly, the dissent added that "It is far too late in the day to contend that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits only racial discrimination; and to me, singling out ...

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