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Sod Farm Associates v. Springfield Tp. Planning Bd.

November 8, 1995


Wells, III, A.j.s.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wells

Civil Action


This is an action in lieu of prerogative writ to overturn certain actions of the Springfield Township Governing Body and the Township's Planning Board. Before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment relating to Counts One, Two, Three Five and Six of the Third Amended Complaint. The specific complaints relate to the Township's refusal to include the plaintiff's property in the Township's Wastewater Management Plan (WMP), an action which effectively denies the property access to sewer service; its repeal of certain favorable density provisions contained in the zoning ordinance; and, finally its adoption of three acre zoning for residential development within the Township.

In order to assess these actions and to evaluate plaintiff's claims which allege that the Township's actions are unlawful zoning and planning regulations which arbitrarily and unreasonably hamper the development of its property and may effectively "take" its property, it is necessary to trace the planning background of Springfield Township to put them in context. The Court has been provided with the Township's Master Plan of 1988 and the "Reexamination" thereof dated December 21, 1993. Both of these documents were alluded to by the parties in their briefs and argued extensively at the hearing on the motions.

The 1988 Master Plan found that:

Springfield Township is a rural community with a long history of agricultural uses....

Springfield Township, a largely rural area, offers little in the way of a striking or unique element within its landscape. The vast acreage of rolling farmland coupled with scattered wooded area and a number of stream waterways do, however, offer a quietly scenic and interesting environment to those seeking the advantage of a pleasant countryside. 1988 Master Plan, page 4-1.

In view of these findings, it is no wonder that the following objectives of planning in the Township found expression among the top three:

1. To maintain the rural character of the Township but recognize the requirements of several laws that pertain to development....

3. To preserve farmlands, woods, streams and the natural areas that presently characterize the Township. Id. page 3-1.

On the idea that actions speak louder than words, the Township also submitted a certification by Cindy Gillman, a senior planner in the Burlington County office of land use planning whose primary responsibility is the administration of the County's farmland preservation program. She points out that Springfield ranks third in term of acres preserved with 1,077 but second in terms of money spent, $5,583,234, over $550,000 of which is the local taxpayers' share. She further states: "...we are on the threshold of enrolling eight (8) more Burlington County farms, totalling 1,328 acres in the program. Two (2) of these farms totalling 205 acres are located in Springfield.... Finally, we are in preliminary negotiations with two more Springfield farms consisting of an additional four hundred (400) acres." Defendant Springfield's Appendix, Exhibit 8.

At the same time it must be recognized that Springfield was not interested in choking off commercial development. The 1988 Master Plan said:

U.S. Highway Route 206 is a four lane highway extending in a north-south direction through the center of the Township. It has convenient access to Route 130, Route 295, and the NJ Turnpike at Bordentown and intersects Route 30 at Hammonton. Route 206 is the primary traffic corridor for Springfield.... 1988 Master Plan, page 4-6.

Route 206 is the main artery for traffic connection to other portions of the State.... Id. 4-10.

The major asset of Route 206 and the lack of public transportation facilities suggests that the area should be reserved for commercial and industrial uses consistent with the environmental constraints of the land. Id. 14-2.

To that end the plan proposed "that smaller lot commercial development would be concentrated near intersecting streets with access to the cross road. In that manner, easy access could be made to Route 206 but the points of conflict would be minimized. In the areas between intersections, larger lot commercial and industrial development would be permitted." Id. 4-11. The plan included a proposed zoning map which preserved a wide area for commercial development on either side of Route 206.

Consistent with these planning ideas, the Township's zoning ordinance, prior to the actions complained of in this case, created an R-1 district which not only permitted farming but also allowed housing on lots not served by public sewer and water systems of 40,000 square feet (one acre). Z.O. sect. 81.17F. The ordinance also awarded a bonus density if sewer and water were present:

If public sewer and water are available and utilized, lots in the R-1 Zone can be 20,000 SF... If public water is also utilized, residential lots can be 15,000 SF.... Z.O. Sect. 81-17H.

The ordinance also created C-1 and C-2 commercial zones in a wide swath around Route 206. It required public sewer and water for commercial development. Z.O. Sect. 81-24.

Thus matters stood from a planning prospective until 1991 when a major housing developer, Toll Brothers, with plans to build in Mansfield Township, a municipality to the north of Springfield, formally asked Springfield's Planning Board to approve a plan whereby its developments could connect to the Mount Holly sewerage treatment plant situated to the south of Springfield via a sewer main running along the 206 corridor through the Township. This plan was initially, at least, looked upon with favor by Springfield officials, particularly because the entire cost of the extension would be borne by Toll Brothers and, as well, because it was a way of opening for development the commercial areas along 206. In fact, the Planning Board endorsed the proposal in connection with preparation of a WMP, submission of which is required by law upon the extension of sewer lines in a municipality. N.J.S.A. 58:11A-1 et seq. and regulations promulgated thereunder N.J.A.C. 7:15-1.1; and see Plaintiff's Exhibits 18 and 19. At this point, enter the Plaintiff.

Sod Farm Associates is and has been for ten years the owner of a large tract of land in Springfield Township. About 176.8 acres of its property along 206 are located in the Township's zoning districts C-1 and C-2. Its remaining 461 acres are located in the R-1 district. As its name implies, plaintiff raises sod for commercial sale. Stymied by the lack of sewer for years, Sod Farm now perceived a golden opportunity to develop its lands and began to press for inclusion of its property in the WMP. One early 1992 draft WMP did include plaintiff's commercial acreage. Plaintiff's Exhibit 20. But in July 1992 plaintiff appeared before the Planning Board with a plan for the development of the residential acreage into small lots under the density bonus and requested the Board to include its residential acreage in the WMP as well. It told the Board on good authority that the Mount Holly sewer treatment plan had the necessary capacity.

The first reaction of the Board was to suggest that more of plaintiff's acreage be zoned commercial. A "Highway Commercial" ("HC") Zone was tentatively proposed. But then matters slowed while the Township collectively rethought its position on the whole idea of the proposed sewer extension along 206. There were continuing Discussions about the proposal at meetings in the Fall of 1992 which culminated in an extended debate on the subject at the Board's meeting of February 2, 1993. Defendant's Appendix, Exhibit 13. That same day, notice had been received that Toll Brothers had abandoned its plans to develop in Mansfield; nevertheless, Plaintiff made an offer to build the sewer extension at its own cost. By March 1993 the Planning Board changed its mind and decided to recommend that none of the Route 206 corridor be sewered. It did recommend that two other small areas of the Township (one of them an area zoned for low and moderate income housing approved by COAH) and no others be included in the WMP. The transcript of a meeting held on March 2, 1993 has been supplied to the Court, Defendant's Exhibit 14, during which the issue of inclusion of plaintiff's property in the WMP was again discussed and a unanimous vote taken against the proposition.

In April 1993, the Board adopted a formal resolution embodying the decision. That resolution which bears careful ...

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