On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Morris County.
Gaulkin, Havey and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Havey, J.A.D.
Plaintiff Pizzo Mantin Group appeals from a judgment upholding the denial by defendant Planning Board of the Township of Randolph (Board) of plaintiff's preliminary major subdivision application. Relying on El Shaer v. Planning Bd., 249 N.J. Super. 323, 592 A.2d 565 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 546, 606 A.2d 360 (1991), the trial court concluded that the Board did not act arbitrarily in denying the application, reasoning that the property was "unsuitable" for development as the proposal was designed. In so finding, the court made no reference to the specific standards of Randolph Township's subdivision ordinance, nor did it decide whether plaintiff had satisfied those standards. We reverse and remand to the Board for further proceedings. We hold that a planning board must review a subdivision application within the framework of, and in accordance with, the standards of a municipality's subdivision and, when applicable, its zoning ordinance. If the application satisfies the standards of the local ordinances and the provisions of the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -129, it should be approved. On remand, the Board should grant or deny plaintiff's proposal based on its application of those standards.
Plaintiff is the owner of a seventy-nine acre tract of land, seventy-two acres of which are in Randolph Township. The remaining seven acres are located in Mendham Township.*fn1 The site is centered along an 885-foot high ridge. From that central ridge, the property descends to the north into Dawson Brook and to the south into India Brook, both pure water trout-production streams. Currently, the tract is wooded and undeveloped. It contains wetlands along both Dawson and India
Brooks and various places along its southerly border. The tract borders the intersection of Combs Avenue and Combs Hollow Road, both presently substandard and barely adequate to service existing development within the "Combs Hollow" section of Randolph Township.
Plaintiff applied for preliminary major subdivision approval to subdivide the tract into thirty lots, two of which were to be retained for detention basins. No variances or plan-design waivers were sought. The proposed roadway design included a loop-style roadway running throughout the development, connecting with Combs Avenue at two locations. Traffic using Combs Avenue would be directed into the loop roadway, and that portion of the avenue between the loop-roadway connections would be designated a private road.
After extensive public hearings, plaintiff's application was denied. In the Board's comprehensive resolution, it found that the site "presents a variety of severe environmental constraints which the proposal does not adequately accommodate." First, the Board concluded that a significant portion of the tract contained slopes which exceed twenty-five percent, and that the "interior loop roadway traverses some of the steepest slope areas located upon the site." It also noted that the design would require removal of 36,700 cubic yards of soil from the site, and found that the removal of this quantity of earth would have "significant soil disturbance ramifications, erosion considerations, and would generally effect a significant intrusion into the pre-existing topography and sloped area." It also found that the "wetlands-averaging waiver" plaintiff was seeking from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Energy would not be adequate to satisfy local environmental concerns. It determined that because of the steep slopes and substantial earth removal, the development "would cause a major environmental impact upon the general area, and particularly upon the two trout streams, Dawson and India Brooks." Finally, the Board found that the proposed loop roadway would result in an "inappropriate traffic flow" and would not promote
the public safety because it would be constructed upon the "most steeply sloped and environmentally sensitive areas of the site."
In upholding the Board's denial, the trial court observed that the loop roadway connecting to Combs Avenue was "a very, very difficult plan in terms of engineering, requiring road construction all around the ridge of the mountains" and resulted in "a gigantic earth movement project." As a further basis for the denial, the court noted the drainage caused by the earth removal from the slope area, which would run off into the two adjoining pure water trout streams. Citing El Shaer, 249 N.J. Super. at 327-29, 592 A.2d 565, which held that a planning board may reject a subdivision plan despite its compliance with the bulk requirements of the zoning ordinance if sound planning considerations justify a denial, the trial court concluded:
In my view, given the teaching of the El Shaer case, given the very serious planning problems from the viewpoint of traffic flow, and more importantly, I think from the viewpoint of major intrusion on the critical slopes, major disturbance and movement of earth both within the tract and off the tract, given the problems posed by that, and given the deference which courts are supposed to pay to decisions made by planning boards, I cannot find that the Planning Board acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously in turning down this subdivision in light of the whole road design problem.
Prior to the passage of the MLUL, procedures for the approval of preliminary subdivision plots were governed by the Municipal Planning Act of 1953 (Planning Act), N.J.S.A. 40:55-1.1 to -1.42 (repealed 1975). Approval was granted either by the local planning board alone or by the governing body on favorable referral from the board. N.J.S.A. 40:55-1.14 (repealed 1975). Under the Planning Act, requirements for plot approval fell into two distinct categories: mandatory general terms and conditions relating to layout, design and other basic features of the subdivision plot ...