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Bell v. Township of Stafford

Decided: May 26, 1988.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Handler. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.


This case engenders first amendment and freedom of speech concerns arising from the efforts of a municipality to regulate through its zoning powers the use of billboards as a form of out-door advertising. The controversy arose from the Township of Stafford's ("Township" or "Stafford") enactment and enforcement of an ordinance declaring that "[b]illboards, signboards, and off-premises advertising signs and devices are prohibited within any zoning district of the Township."*fn1

Three separate billboards owned by Wesley K. Bell ("Bell"), trading as Wes Outdoor Advertising, that are located along Route 72 in the municipality have been affected by the ordinance, whose constitutional validity was upheld by the trial court. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's decision and found that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Stafford filed a petition for certification and notice of appeal. We granted certification, 108 N.J. 191 (1987),*fn2 and now affirm the Appellate Division's decision.


In its opinion, the Appellate Division provided a brief recitation of the underlying events, which suffices for our disposition of the matter.

During the latter half of the 1960's Wesley K. Bell obtained title to two plots of land located along Route 72 in Stafford identified as Block 145A, Lot 26A (Lot 26A) and Block 120, Lot 8 (Lot 8). Thereafter, Bell constructed a number of billboards on these properties. During the early 1970's the DOT [ i.e., Department of Transportation] sought to condemn a portion of Lot 26A in order to widen Route 72, a State highway which passes through Stafford. Bell unsuccessfully challenged that condemnation action in the state and federal courts.

On September 30, 1983 agents of the DOT entered upon Lot 26A and cut down the billboard located thereon. At the same time, the DOT mistakenly tore down the billboard located on Lot 8 even though this land had not been condemned by the State. Bell then disassembled the billboards and removed them to his warehouse for repairs. In May 1984 Bell reconstructed the billboard on the portion of Lot 26A which the State had not taken in the condemnation proceedings, despite an order by Stafford not to do so.

On May 8, 1984 Bell entered into a contract with Lewis [ sic ] and Jeanne Raupp to purchase a plot of land identified as Block 158A, Lots 114 and 119 (Block 158A) which contained a billboard thereon. On May 18, 1984 Bell purchased another billboard which he intended to relocate to the property he had just purchased from the Raupps. Thereafter, he filed an application with Stafford seeking approval of the relocation.

On May 30, 1984, Stafford filed an action in the Chancery Division, claiming that Bell needed a building permit in order to maintain the billboard on Lot 26A. The judge who heard the matter held that a new building permit was required notwithstanding the fact that Bell had obtained a building permit at the time that the original billboard had been constructed on Lot 26A. During the first week of June 1984, Bell also began to reconstruct the billboard which had been improperly torn down by the DOT on Lot 8. Stafford's construction code official, Robert Mears (Mears), ordered Bell to stop work on this billboard until he obtained a building permit. Stafford then filed a second suit and the same judge again determined that a building permit was required in order to reconstruct the billboard on Lot 8.

As a result of that litigation, Bell filed applications for building permits on Lots 26A and 8. In the meantime, Stafford had amended its Ordinance 77-22, which had regulated the use of billboards in the Township, by passing Ordinance No. 84-35, which sought to prohibit all billboards for off-premises advertising within any zoning district of the Township. On July 2, 1984 Bell received written notices denying his application for building permits on Lots 26A and 8 and his application to relocate the billboard from Block 181, Lot 4 to Block 158A, Lots 114 and 119. Among other reasons, the applications purportedly were denied because billboards were prohibited under Ordinance 84-35 within any zoning district of the municipality.

On receipt of the Township notices Bell filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs against the Township, which in part sought a declaratory judgment that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face. The trial court rejected this argument but

the Appellate Division reversed, ruling that the ordinance was facially unconstitutional.

Stafford contends that the Appellate Division erred in declaring the ordinance unconstitutional. The Township maintains that the appellate court should have refrained from making its determination of unconstitutionality, and instead have decided this case on nonconstitutional grounds. Specifically, the Township's alleges: (1) that Bell's billboards are not entitled to protection as non-conforming uses; (2) that the Township should not have any wrong imputed to it because of ...

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