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Lehen v. Atlantic Highlands Zoning Board of Adjustment

Decided: December 11, 1991.

JOHN LEHEN AND HELEN LEHEN, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS ZONING BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT, GERALD V. MENNA, CONSTRUCTION OFFICIAL AND ALFRED F. KATZ, ZONING OFFICER, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

King, Dreier and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.

King

This case involves an attempt to remodel a nonconforming structure and use, a rooming and boarding house, in a residential zone in Atlantic Highlands. The appeal is from a ruling in the Law Division dismissing plaintiffs' complaint in lieu of prerogative writ and affirming the denial of zoning relief by the Atlantic Highlands Zoning Board of Adjustment. We essentially affirm the result reached in the Law Division, but for somewhat narrower reasons than expressed by the judge in her written opinions of January 3, 1990 and July 10, 1990.

John and Helen Lehen own an improved property located at 89 Center Street in the Borough of Atlantic Highlands. The property is located in an R-1 residential area. The Victorian-style dwelling has been used as a rooming house and multifamily

dwelling and was a valid nonconforming use since well before the Lehens' purchase of the property in 1980.

At the time of the Lehens' purchase of the property the structure consisted of ten rental rooms and two apartments. According to the Lehens, each habitable room or apartment is designated by the State as a "dwelling unit." N.J.A.C. 5:28-1.2. Boarding rooms may be occupied only by one person; apartments may be occupied by more than one person.

In 1981 or 1982, the Lehens requested and received construction permits from the Borough permitting them to change the number of units from ten rooms and two apartments to five rooms and five apartments. No proposed plans were submitted during this permitting process. All of the renovations were internal.

In 1987 the Lehens decided to remodel the third floor of the house, which has been referred to as "a 1/2-floor." A steeply-sloped roof with five peaks limited available space for the third-floor tenants. Up until this time the third floor had consisted of one apartment and two boarding rooms with a shared kitchen. The Lehens proposed to convert the two boarding rooms on the third floor into another apartment, reducing the number of total dwelling units from ten to nine but increasing the number of apartments from five to six. The proposed renovations would "square off" the roof in order to create more room.

The Lehens contacted Alfred Katz, the Borough Zoning Official, and told him of their plans "to open up the third floor and make more head room and expand the third floor area." According to the Lehens, Katz requested a survey and photographs of the building. After taking time to "check it out," Katz told the Lehens that "he didn't feel there would be any problem with it." The Lehens then applied for and received a construction permit. The construction permit described the work as: "square off rooms and apartments on 3rd floor and replace roof."

Katz testified at the prerogative writ hearing that in 1987 he had told Mrs. Lehen that the use of dormers to make more room on the third floor could, under a strict or technical interpretation of the ordinance, be considered an expansion of the nonconforming building. Katz thought, however, that it was "an intelligent thing to do" and had no problem with the proposed construction. He testified that he understood the Lehens would be raising the roof line, but not altering the peak of the roof. Based upon his understanding of the proposed construction, Katz preliminarily approved the orally described plans and allowed the Lehens to bypass approval from the Zoning Board.

A construction permit was issued in December 1987 which stated, as noted: "Description of Work -- Square off rooms and apartments on 3rd floor and replace roof." The permit was signed by the construction official, Gerald Menna. No plans regarding the proposed construction were ever requested or submitted. Menna testified that he did not get a plan from the Lehens; he admitted that it was "very irregular that I would have issued a building permit without a plan." Menna stated that it "could have been a mistake," and that prior to his taking over the construction office, a few weeks before, the office had been a "very loose operation." Nevertheless, on the basis of the construction permit, the Lehens also received the necessary plumbing and electrical permits.

The Lehens began construction on the third floor in June 1988. They did not use a contractor. While the roof was being removed, Mr. Lehen noticed that the corners of the building and roof line were "rotted" and "charred." As a result of the deterioration, Lehen decided to remove and rebuild the entire third floor instead of simply remodeling. A new platform, or floor, for the third floor was installed which extended out three to four feet beyond the first and second floors on ...


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