Before Judges Baime, A.a. Rodr¡guez and Kimmelman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, P.j.a.d.
 Argued October 7, 1998
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County. Neil J. Dworkin argued the cause for appellant Board of Adjustment of Township of Springfield.
This appeal presents novel questions concerning the nature of rights that inhere in the grant of a use variance. The subject property is "split-zoned," the front portion located in a commercial zone and the rear portion located in a residential zone. In 1956, the Springfield Board of Adjustment (Board) granted a variance permitting Sak's Fifth Avenue to use the rear portion of the property for a parking lot accessory to its planned retail store. Several years later, the Board granted another variance allowing Sak's to extend the structure of its store into the residential zone. Stop & Shop Supermarket Company subsequently purchased the property and filed an application with the Board to operate a supermarket, relying on the variances granted previously to Sak's. Following a series of hearings, the Board denied Stop & Shop's application, finding that the proposed use of the property was not substantially similar or essentially duplicative of the use for which the variances were originally granted. The Board thus concluded that Stop & Shop was obliged to file a new application for a use variance. The Law Division overruled the Board, holding that the effect of the prior variances was to allow Stop & Shop to use the property for any purpose permitted in a commercial zone by the Township's zoning ordinance. We reverse. We hold that a use created by a variance may not be expanded or substantially changed without further application to the board of adjustment.
The facts are not in dispute and are essentially a matter of public record. The property is located on Millburn Avenue straddling the Millburn-Springfield border. The bulk of the property is situated in Springfield. Under the Springfield ordinance, the front of the property is zoned commercial and the uses permitted include "[t]he sale of goods for . . . consumption off the premises . . . intended to meet direct consumer food, clothing, furnishing, recreational or other needs . . . ." The rear of the property is zoned single family residential.
In 1956 Sak's applied for a variance to permit the rear portion of the property to be used for off-street parking. In granting the variance, the Springfield Board found that the rear portion of the property did not "practically lend [itself to] the construction of houses." The Board concluded that "integrated development" of the land required use of the rear portion for a parking lot which would ease "traffic flow into the abutting residential areas" and alleviate traffic congestion.
In 1968, Sak's applied for a use variance to extend the rear portion of its department store building into the residential zone. The Springfield Board again granted Sak's application, finding that the department store "provide[d] shopping of a quality not otherwise available in the community." The Board further determined that extension of the building into the residential zone would not impair the value or use of the surrounding areas. Years later, Saks abandoned its department store operation at that location.
Stop & Shop purchased the property in 1996. Intending to operate a supermarket, Stop & Shop applied to the Springfield zoning officer for an interpretation whether its proposed use of the property would comport with the variances granted previously to Sak's. Stop & Shop's application and supporting documents were forwarded to the Board's attorney who concluded that the proposed use of the property as a supermarket differed substantially from Sak's prior operation of a retail store. The attorney suggested that Stop & Shop apply to the Board for a use variance.
Stop & Shop appealed the attorney's decision to the Board. Extensive hearings were conducted. We need not describe in detail all of the evidence presented. Suffice it to say, Stop & Shop contended that the variances previously granted to Sak's essentially converted the rear portion of the property from residentially zoned land to commercially zoned land. Although the argument advanced by Stop & Shop was ambiguously phrased, the gist of its contention was that it could develop the property for any purpose consistent with a permitted commercial use under the Springfield zoning ordinance. To paraphrase, Stop & Shop argued that the effect of the variances was to rezone the rear portion of the property from residential to commercial, and that changes in the intensity of use of the land and traffic were to be considered during the site plan review of the development.
Several individuals and businesses objected to Stop & Shop's application. They asserted that the use of the property proposed by Stop & Shop was "qualitatively" different than that authorized under the variances granted to Sak's. More specifically, they claimed that operation of a supermarket would substantially increase the intensity of traffic and would significantly impact upon the surrounding residential area.
The Board determined that the prior variances granted to Saks did not authorize Stop & Shop to operate a supermarket or a parking lot accessory to such use in the residential zone. In its resolution, the Board stressed that its grant of the 1956 and 1968 variances reflected "only the quality, design and intensity of use proposed by Sak's." In contrast, the Board found that operation of a supermarket presented marked differences in traffic patterns, truck deliveries and hours of operations. The Board thus concluded that the supermarket activities proposed by Stop & Shop were not of a "similar nature, kind or use intensity" and were not permitted under the variances previously granted to Sak's.
Stop & Shop brought an action in lieu of prerogative writs. The Law Division reversed the Board's decision. In its written decision, the court stressed that operation of a supermarket constituted a permitted commercial use under Springfield's zoning ordinance. The court reasoned that the prior variances permitting Sak's to use the rear portion of the property as a parking lot and to extend the structure of the store into a residential zone was "not personal to the owner to whom it [was] granted but [was] available to the grantees' successors." In reaching this Conclusion, the ...