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Springsteel v. Town of West Orange

Decided: April 5, 1977.

BERNARD SPRINGSTEEL AND ELIZABETH SPRINGSTEEL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
TOWN OF WEST ORANGE ET AL., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



Matthews, Seidman and Horn.

Per Curiam

By an action in lieu of prerogative writs plaintiffs challenged the grant of a variance which permits defendant Jewish Community Development Corporation*fn1 to construct upon Lots 15-18 and 19, Block 165, located in primarily a residential zone for one-family dwellings, a senior citizens' housing project consisting of four structures to contain a total of 134 housing units. Plaintiffs*fn2 are residents and taxpayers of the township and reside in the vicinity of the proposed construction known as the Dogwood Farms and Oaks sections of the town.

On June 17, 1975 the variance was granted by the town council upon the recommendation of the board of adjustment. N.J.S.A. 40:55-39(d), since repealed, L. 1975, c. 291, ยง 80, effective August 1, 1976. The Superior Court, Law Division, upheld the grant of the variance and entered judgment accordingly. Plaintiffs then filed this appeal from the judgment.

Plaintiffs do not contend that the decision of the town council to grant the variance was arbitrary or capricious or otherwise constituted an abuse of its discretion. Their arguments are that the doctrine of estoppel (1) bars defendant Jewish Community Development Corporation from obtaining the variance and (2) "should prohibit defendant town from granting the variance."

The basis of the estoppel claim primarily rests upon the testimony of plaintiff Bernard Springsteel. He said that in 1963 the then owner of the tract, Jewish Community Foundation (Foundation), applied for a variance to permit it to construct what is now the West Orange YMHA on Lot

15 of the tract. Various members of the Dogwood Farms Civic Association who lived in the vicinity of the subject tract were opposed to the construction of the building. While the application was pending a representative of the Foundation met with Springsteel and another member of the Civic Association, one Michaeli, in the backyard of the Springsteel house. The representative allegedly told Springsteel and Michaeli that if the objectors would withdraw their protests against the grant of the variance, "there would be no other structure or outdoor activities erected on that property" and "that it would be left as park land." Consequently, the Civic Association made no objection to the application. Although objections to the grant of the variance apparently were voiced by others, the variance was granted upon condition that "no part of the premises in question or the proposed building be used for residential purposes."

The alleged promise was never reduced to writing. Although the terms of the stated condition were not in accordance with the alleged promise, no objection was ever made. Springsteel could not say whether the condition was required by the board of adjustment on its own initiative, or whether it was required as a consequence of the alleged promise.

The hearing before the trial judge was on the record made before the board of adjustment. No additional proof was offered before the judge. We gather that the judge upheld the challenged variance generally on a finding that plaintiffs had failed to overcome the presumptive validity of the municipal action, Grundlehner v. Dangler , 29 N.J. 256, 266 (1959); Bonsall v. Mendham Tp. , 116 N.J. Super. 337 (App. Div. 1971), certif. den. 59 N.J. 529 (1971); that the condition to which the 1963 variance was subject was properly lifted by the township council by reason of changed circumstances, i.e. , the acute need for senior citizen housing, Cohen v. Fair Lawn , 85 N.J. Super. 234 (App. Div. 1964), and because the applicant, Jewish Community

Development Corporation, had established "special reasons," thereby satisfying the requirements of N.J.S.A. 40:55-39(d). Although we differ from the trial judge in our ratiocination, nevertheless we agree that the action of defendant Town of West Orange should be sustained. Accordingly, we affirm.

Turning to the first ground raised by plaintiffs -- that the doctrine of estoppel bars defendant Jewish Community Development Corporation from obtaining the variance -- we first note the procedural defect in plaintiffs' action. The instant action is founded upon misconception of the roles of the board of adjustment and the township council. Neither of these bodies is a court capable of adjudicating either legal or equitable issues. Their respective functions and powers depend upon statutory grants. A board of adjustment may perform quasi-judicial functions, but only in the sphere of authority vested in it by N.J.S.A. 40:55-39. V.F. Zahodiakin Engineering Corp. v. Summit Bd. of Adj. , 8 N.J. 386 (1952); Potts v. Princeton Bd. of Adj. , 133 N.J.L. 230 (Sup. Ct. 1945).

Our judicial system is primarily concerned with the substance of controversies and, where permissible, will overlook procedural flaws, if the interests of justice so require. But the problem here is not a ...


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