On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Hunterdon County.
Shebell, Long and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Landau, J.A.D.
Plaintiffs Birenda Nath Ganguly (Ganguly) and the Kali Bari Temple (Temple) appeal from a Law Division judgment affirming the denial of their application for a dual use variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70d, a bulk variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70c and certain site plan approvals by defendant-respondent Board of Adjustment of Readington Township (Board).
Ganguly is a Hindu clergyman. In 1989, he purchased a house on Stanton Road in Readington, located in its RR residential zone. On his attorney's advice, title to the property was taken in the names of Ganguly and the Kali Bari Temple, a tax-exempt non-profit religious organization. The property is located on 7.24 acres bordering a long blind curve on Stanton Road. The RR residential zone permits single family residences as of right, but allows religious-institution use only upon grant of special exception by the Board. Readington, Zoning Ordinance, §§ 2.1.1 to 2.1.2. The general provisions of the Township's Zoning Ordinance also prohibit "[c]ombined residential and other use of a building, except where specifically permitted." Readington, Zoning Ordinance, § 7.9.
As a spiritual leader in the Hindu religion, Ganguly wishes to hold religious services in a portion of his home. To that end, he converted his family room into a temple where he and other followers of his religion can worship. The room, which contains 574 square feet, has its own outside doorway. Ganguly's plans call for no alterations to the exterior, save for modifying the entrance doorway to the temple room with a "temple shape" arch.
Religious services are ordinarily held only by appointment, and range from one to two hours in length. Typically, only one family at a time prays together with the religious leader, who offers a message of inspiration. Ganguly makes himself available to his small congregation at all hours, except during afternoons when he has secular employment. The congregation presently numbers
fifteen to twenty, and Ganguly says there is no plan to increase its size.
In addition to the above services, six major Hindu religious holidays require formal religious services on dates determined by the Indian calendar. During one holiday, the worshipers attend the Temple between ten a.m. and noon for three consecutive days. A small bell is rung during prayers but cannot be heard outside the house. At any given time during the two hour holiday prayer sessions, there are between fifteen and twenty people in attendance. Ganguly is also authorized to perform marriage ceremonies, which might be attended by as many as thirty or forty people.
Plaintiffs sought a variance to sanction use of the family room for temple purposes, while retaining residence use for the remainder of the house. Because of this use application, plaintiffs also asked for relief from small deficiencies in bulk requirements for which the property would enjoy non-conforming status but for the proposed use modification. The ordinance requires a minimum lot circle of 250 feet and a 40 foot setback. Plaintiffs' house presents a 230 foot lot circle and 36.49 foot set back. The site plan approval request was to cover any alterations which might be required by the Board.
To alleviate concerns of the Board that the congregation's size could not be controlled once variances were granted, plaintiffs were willing to limit size of the congregation to the fire code capacity of the Temple room.
Ganguly expressed willingness to comply with other conditions which might be imposed by the Board. Conditions discussed by the Board included ramping the Temple room for handicapped-accessibility and enlarging the width of the driveway to fourteen feet. The present driveway can accommodate nine parked cars, although the site has room for thirty to forty vehicles without blocking access and egress in an emergency situation. In response to the Board's concern that vehicles must be able to exit the driveway during an emergency, plaintiffs said they were
willing to put additional parking spaces anywhere on the property designated by the Board.
The Board's Resolution rejected plaintiffs' application upon the following findings:
1. The primary nature of the within application is that of a use variance converting a residential structure into a dual use residence with religious services. As such, the use in question is not recognized by either the ...