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Nigro v. Planning Board of Borough of Saddle River

Decided: February 5, 1991.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 237 N.J. Super. 305 (1989).

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


In this case, we consider the binding nature of a municipality's official map on local planning board decisions regarding subdivision approvals.

The Demarest family owns a twenty-seven-acre farm in Saddle River. Plaintiff, James Nigro, entered into a contract with the Demarests to purchase ten acres of their property. The subject property was landlocked. In his subdivision application, Nigro proposed an access road servicing the proposed lots through an additional piece of property fronting on Twin Brooks Road that he bought for that purpose. The official map of Saddle River showed no road on Nigro's property but showed a "proposed street" on the portion of the Demarest property not sold to Nigro but retained by the Demarests for farming.

In March 1988, defendant, the Saddle River Planning Board ("Planning Board" or "Board"), denied Nigro's application for preliminary approval of a major subdivision. Admitting that the case presented "a close question," the Board ruled that Nigro's application failed to conform to the intent of the Saddle River master plan, and that the location of the subdivision access road on Nigro's property conflicted with the proposed street on the official map, located on the Demarest property, which the Board deemed "conclusive" and binding under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-32. That statute provides, in part, that a town's "official map shall be deemed conclusive with respect to the location . . . of streets . . ., whether or not such streets . . . are improved or unimproved or are in actual physical existence."

The Law Division reversed the Planning Board on two grounds: (1) that "non-compliance with proposed streets does not amount to non-compliance" with the subdivision ordinance or the official map; and (2) that the denial of the application was arbitrary and capricious. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that N.J.S.A. 40:55D-32 rendered the official map "statutorily conclusive with respect to the street location." Nigro v. Planning Bd. of Saddle River, 237 N.J. Super. 305, 306, 567 A.2d 1010 (1989). The Board "therefore could not lawfully approve a proposal that failed to conform to the official map." Ibid.

We granted Nigro's petition for certification, 121 N.J. 627, 583 A.2d 323 (1990), to consider the conclusiveness of an official map in the planning process, and now reverse.


George Demarest and his wife, Elizabeth, own a 27.2-acre plot of land that the family has farmed for over a century. The Demarests want to continue to farm some property, but, as Mr. Demarest testified, since they are getting older, they want to sell some of their acreage. They decided to sell ten acres in the southerly portion of their property and to continue farming

their remaining land.*fn1 Mr. Demarest further testified that he refused Nigro's offer to purchase the entire tract. He explained that it would be impossible to bring a road in from Glenwood Drive and farm in the back of the tract. Finally, he stated that he and his family are still active, do not want to give up farming, and have a son and daughter-in-law who desire to continue farming.

Accordingly, Nigro contracted to purchase approximately ten acres that constitute the southwest corner of the Demarest family farm. The entire farm is circumscribed by the rear portions of developed residential properties along Glenwood Drive to the north and along Twin Brooks Road to the south. Nigro's plot abuts no streets currently in existence; it is effectively landlocked. For the sole purpose of gaining access to the ten acres, Nigro purchased for $1,900,000 an adjacent property fronting Twin Brooks Road.

Thereafter, on January 14, 1988, Nigro applied to the Planning Board for preliminary approval of a major subdivision of his plot, providing for four residential lots. The Board had rejected Nigro's previous application for subdivision of the same property in October 1987. The lots proposed in the 1988 application conformed to the required areas and frontages of local zoning laws. Nigro's plan proposed an access road (hereinafter "access road") from Twin Brooks Road, running north into the ten-acre plot, and ending in a cul-de-sac on the property he is acquiring. However, the official map shows the only proposed street in the area (hereinafter "proposed street") as running south and west from Glenwood Drive across the Demarest Farm and ending in a cul-de-sac.

On March 22, 1988, the Planning Board denied Nigro's application because it failed to conform to the intent of the master

plan in that it proposed two cul-de-sacs, whereas the master plan indicated only one. The Board also stressed that the proposal for a new street in the plan could not be approved because it deviated from the proposed street on the official map layout, which the Board deemed conclusive under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-32.

The basic conflict arises in creating a public street in an area where single family residential homes exist where no street was ever contemplated, and in a location not conforming to the planning process of the municipality which clearly contemplated development from Glenwood Drive.

[Planning Board Resolution, Mar. 22, 1989.]

Both the access road and the proposed street end in cul-desacs, the access road's cul-de-sac being located entirely on the property to be acquired by Nigro. Before the Board and the Appellate Division, it was never asserted that the proposed street or its cul-de-sac encroached on the acreage being sold to Nigro. After argument, however, the parties presented conflicting maps. Nigro's map indicates that although close, the proposed street and the access road do not overlap. The Board's map, however, shows the cul-de-sac of Nigro's proposed access road lying in the route of the official map's proposed street. Nigro's counsel represented that the Demarests would sell to Nigro the small portion of property necessary to insure that the two roads would not overlap. As an alternative, the access road could undoubtedly be redesigned to avoid any overlap.


In reviewing the question of whether the location of proposed streets shown on an official map is conclusive and binding on a planning board, we first review the history of official maps and master plans in New Jersey as the contextual background for our consideration of the statutory scheme of the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -129.

A. History of the Official Map

The term "official map" was first used by Basset and Williams in their model "County Planning Enabling Act" published in 1935. Anderson, Law of Zoning in New Jersey ยง 24.01 (1989). Although an official map is a precise map, showing the existing and proposed streets, highways, drainage systems, and other public improvements, it is essentially a tool of planning, rather than zoning. An official map "does not portray the zoning districts or relate to the zoning plan except insofar as both the zoning scheme and the official map undertake to implement a common plan for the development of land." Ibid.

Originally, official maps were regarded as mere descriptions of future plans for public improvements. Their function was one of simple notification. In an early case, the United States Supreme Court explained:

The object of the recording of the map is to give notice to all persons of the system of highways proposed to be established by subsequent proceedings of condemnation. It does not restrict in any way the use or improvement of lands by their owners before the commencement of proceedings for condemnation of lands ...

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