On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Burlington County, reported at 171 N.J. Super. 287 (1979).
Allcorn, Pressler and Furman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
The State of New Jersey, Department of Corrections, appeals from a judgment of the Law Division permanently enjoining it from using a residential property purchased by it in Pemberton Township as a home for a small group of pre-adolescent boys between the ages of 8 and 13, who have been committed to the State Training School for Boys at Skillman and who, in the judgment of the Superintendent of Skillman, should and can be successfully diverted from an institutional setting to one approximately as closely as possible a normal family environment. For the reasons herein set forth we reverse and hold that there is no impediment in Pemberton's zoning and other land use ordinances or in a fair consideration of its legitimate local interests inhibiting the Department from proceeding to implement its intended use of the property.
The property in question, referred to throughout the trial as the Goodman house, is located in the New Lisbon section of Pemberton and is one of a group of approximately seven large single-family residences on large lots. The lot size of the property in question is in excess of four acres and includes several outbuildings as well as a large colonial house of distinctive architectural style in an excellent state of repair and containing many bedrooms. The property is located in Pemberton's R-1 zone, which is subject to a 40,000 square foot minimum lot requirement and is apparently part of the township's prime single-family residential neighborhood. The immediate vicinity, while retaining some rural characteristics, also includes a variety of state, county, local and private institutional uses, among them Burlington County College, county and municipal buildings, a
private facility housing mental and geriatric patients, a drug abuse rehabilitation center, a juvenile detention center housing 50 juveniles of both sexes awaiting hearing, a minimum-security work release facility, a county geriatric facility and a JINS center.
The availability of the Goodman house came to the attention of Thomas Lynch, Assistant Commissioner for Juvenile Services of the Department of Corrections, in September 1978 in connection with his search for premises for use as a group home for teenage girls who had been adjudicated delinquent and sentenced to a custodial disposition. Impressed with the physical suitability of the property for a group home, he made an initial inquiry of the mayor regarding potential local receptivity to the project. Strong opposition was expressed, on the basis of which Lynch concluded that it would be counterproductive for the Department to pursue that plan. He thereupon and upon consultation with the Commissioner of the Department; William Fauver, the Superintendent of Skillman, Dr. Alfred Vuocolo and other Department officials, conceived of the plan of using the property as a group home for a small number of pre-adolescent boys selected from among the general Skillman population. The time for formulation of the plan and making the logistical arrangements necessary to consummate the purchase was exceedingly limited since the property, which had been on the market for some extended period, was to be offered for sale by its owners at a public auction to be held in mid-October. Lynch did, however, arrange for a field inspection to be conducted by Harold Miller, a social work supervisor at Skillman, who has special expertise and experience in group homes for youngsters. He was to investigate and report on the suitability of the premises for group home for young boys, both in terms of the property itself and the surrounding community, and to determine community sentiment, insofar as possible, by discussions with local officials and neighbors. His report as to the property's suitability was generally favorable although not without reservation, and to the extent he was able to determine community
sentiment, his impression was that it was neutral or at least not strongly opposed to the project.
Based on the Miller report Lynch, with Fauver's complete support and Vuocolo's enthusiastic endorsement, proceeded both with plan formulation and acquisition procedures. The plan was predicated on the theory that among the Skillman population, numbering approximately 155, there was an appreciable number of boys whose adjudications of delinquency were based on minor offenses against property and who were committed to Skillman only because of a lack of a suitable home environment adequate to deal with them and their problems. The purpose of the project was thus to create a normal, healthy, stable and supportive family environment for these young boys whose delinquency problems are primarily attributable to the misfortune of having no such families of their own. The family environment concept was to be implemented by selecting six to eight boys, aged 8 to 13, from Skillman to live in the house as if siblings with substitute parents. The substitute parents, also referred to as therapeutic or treatment parents, would be a married couple, both of whom would be professionally trained in either education, social work or psychology. Consistent with the desire to reproduce a family environment, it was further anticipated that no counselling, vocational or other therapeutic programs would be conducted in the home.
In order to insure the success of the family substitute concept of the program, its standards and guidelines were carefully spelled out in the Department's application for funding therefor to the State Law Enforcement Planning Agency (SLEPA). Selection would be limited to boys deemed able, academically, socially and behaviorally, to successfully attend the local public schools and otherwise to integrate with the community. Excluded from consideration for the program would be emotionally disturbed or retarded children, children who had been adjudicated delinquent on the basis of either serious charges or charges involving violent behavior, and children requiring special services such as psychological counselling, therapy sessions and the
like. Any child participating in the program evidencing any inappropriate behavior would be immediately returned to Skillman. A residence period of approximately six months was contemplated to permit, among other considerations, school term continuity. The boys would be encouraged to participate in such community activities as Scouts and Little League. Within the home they would perform such chores as are customarily performed by boys of similar age living with their own families. In every respect, therefore, their lives, daily routine and interactions with each other and their substitute parents would reproduce the dynamics and functioning of a natural family.
In addition to the spaciousness of the house and grounds of the Goodman property, other aspects of Pemberton recommended it as an appropriate community for the program. The population is multi-racial, socio-economically heterogeneous and, because of the close proximity to Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, transient in nature to an appreciable extent. Thus, it was Lynch's perception that the boys, in significant respects, would not be much different from their peers in the community and would, therefore, find their own adjustments and accommodations to the substitute family easier to make than they would in a racially, socially and economically homogeneous community of stable population. He also regarded as advantageous the proximity of the County College, it having been the experience at Skillman itself that college students take an active and constructive interest in the welfare of these disadvantaged boys on a volunteer basis. Finally, the fact that Pemberton ...