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Jehovah''s Witnesses Assembly Hall of Southern New Jersey v. Woolwich Township

Decided: April 20, 1987.

JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES ASSEMBLY HALL OF SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



Edward S. Miller, J.s.c.

Miller

This case comes before the court on plaintiff's complaint in lieu of prerogative writs. Plaintiff claims that defendant's actions were arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory and unlawful, defendant has violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Federal and State Constitutions, the change in zoning is an unlawful prohibition of free exercise of religion and an unlawful denial of the freedom of assembly.

The facts of the case are as follows. Plaintiff executed a contract to purchase certain real estate in Woolwich Township, with the intention of building an assembly hall to be used for conducting religious meetings, worship, prayer and dissemination of religious information. The assembly hall would be used by approximately 1000 to 1500 persons. The members would arrive on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 8:00 a.m. and leave around 5:00 p.m. The building would house a caretaker and because of the lack of municipal services to the area have its own well and sewage treatment plant. The assembly hall would draw Jehovah's Witnesses for South Jersey, Wilmington, Delaware, and some part of Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Defendant Woolwich Township is a rural community with a population of about 1200. The area in which plaintiff intended to build the assembly hall was located partitionally in an R-2 residential zone and an M-manufacturing zone. Churches or houses of worship were permitted in both zones; however, M-zones permitted private clubs, lodges or social buildings, as special exceptions or conditional uses in R-2 zones.

The chronology of events that lead to this action are as follows:

February 25, 1986. Plaintiff submitted an application for site plan approval. March 6, 1986. At the regular meeting of the planning board, plaintiff advanced its application for site plan approval. However, Roy Benjamin, township engineer, indicated there were several items in the application that needed clarification before the application could be approved. Consequently, plaintiff's application was carried to the next month's regular meeting.

March 24, 1986. At a special meeting of the township committee, the amended zoning ordinance was read for the first time.

March 27, 1986. Defendant published a public notice in the Gloucester County Times of the proposed changes of the zoning map and a notice that the zoning changes passed on first reading on March 24, 1986 and would be considered for final passage on April 7, 1986.

April 3, 1986. Plaintiff appeared before the planning board to continue its application for site plant approval. The board chairman indicated that the township engineer had not had sufficient time to review the updated plans since he had received them that morning. Therefore, the board voted to delay action on plaintiff's application until April 9, 1986.

April 7, 1986. Defendant passed the amended ordinance which re-zoned some 2000 acres in the township. Particularly, it changed the previous M-zone where plaintiff was going to locate to an R- (residential) zone. The re-zoning then prohibited the building of churches or places of worship from a residential zone. Building such a facility was zoned to other areas in the township.

April 8, 1986. Defendant published a public notice in the Gloucester County Times that the ordinance re-zoning areas of the township passed the second and final reading on April 7, 1986.

April 9, 1986. Plaintiff appeared before the planning board. The chairman informed plaintiff that the zoning had been amended and that plaintiff's proposed use was no longer permitted in a residential zone. Therefore, it could not act on plaintiff's ...


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