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Eastampton Center, LLC v. Township of Eastampton

July 9, 2001

EASTAMPTON CENTER, LLC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, IN THE COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, THE TOWNSHIP COUNCIL OF TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, AND THE PLANNING BOARD OF TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, DEFENDANTS, DANIEL M. TABAS AND ESTATE OF CHARLES L. TABAS, A PENNSYLVANIA PARTNERSHIP TRADING AS TABAS BROTHERS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, IN THE COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, THE TOWNSHIP COUNCIL OF TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, AND THE PLANNING BOARD OF TOWNSHIP OF EASTAMPTON, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pisano, District Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

I. Introduction

In April 1999, Eastampton Center, LLC ("ECLLC"), and Daniel M. Tabas and the Estate of Charles L. Tabas ("Tabas") (together, "Plaintiffs") commenced separate actions against the Township of Eastampton ("Eastampton" or "Township"), the Township Council of Eastampton ("Council"), and the Planning Board of Eastampton ("Planning Board") (together, "Defendants") alleging, inter alia, that Eastampton's comprehensive land use amendments to its Master Plan and implementing zoning ordinances ("challenged land use ordinances") discriminate on the basis of familial status in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a) (1994).

Eastampton is a small community located in Burlington County, New Jersey, which has approximately 6,000 residents. As a result of a comprehensive re-examination of Eastampton's Master Plan and development regulations, Defendants adopted the challenged land use ordinances, which rezoned and/or downzoned *fn1 properties located within Eastampton purportedly to provide for open space, to increase the commercial tax base and to control residential growth. Plaintiffs are developers/property owners, whose ability to construct residential developments on their properties was either eliminated or significantly curtailed as a result of the adoption of the challenged land use ordinances. Plaintiffs contend that the challenged land use ordinances violate the Fair Housing Act because their adoption was motivated by an intent to discriminate on the basis of familial status, and reduced the total number of housing units available for families with children in Eastampton. Defendants contend, inter alia, that the challenged land use ordinances, which reduce prospective housing construction, do not raise a cognizable claim under the Fair Housing Act, and do not discriminate on the basis of familial status.

The two actions filed by Plaintiffs were subsequently consolidated, and Plaintiffs now jointly move for a partial summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Fed.R.Civ.P.") 56 on count one of both complaints, which asserts a claim under the Fair Housing Act. Defendants oppose Plaintiffs' motion and cross-move for partial summary judgment on the Fair Housing Act claim. This case presents an issue of first impression in this Circuit as to whether a municipality may adopt land use ordinances, which reduce the allowable housing construction within the municipality, to provide for open space, to increase the commercial tax base, and to control residential growth without running afoul of the Fair Housing Act. The Court decides the motion without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion, and grants Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment on the Fair Housing Act claim.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

B. The Parties

ECLLC is the owner of land located in Eastampton. (Plaintiffs' Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Pls.' Stat."), ¶ 1). ECLLC's property is designated as Block 600, Lots 2, 2.02, and 4 on the tax maps of Eastampton and consists of approximately 210 acres ("ECLLC Property"). *fn2 (Pls.' Stat., ¶¶ 1, 6). Between 1986 and 1997, the ECLLC Property was primarily used as a farm. (Solondz Dep. at 9, attached to Defs.' Certif. as Ex. A). Prior to the adoption of the challenged land use ordinances, the ECLLC Property was located in the Town Center Zone district which allowed for mixed-use development, including residential, business, and quasi-public use. (Pls.' Stat., ¶¶ 6, 7). The residential use allowed for single-family and multi-family housing. "Family" is defined as "one or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship, or any number of persons not so related occupying a dwelling unit and living as a single housekeeping unit." *fn3 (Ordinance 1999-03 at 14, attached to Pls.' Certif. as Ex. K).

Tabas owns undeveloped land in Eastampton, which is designated as Block 1000, Lot 6 on the tax maps and consists of approximately 40 acres ("Tabas Property"). (Pls.' Stat., ¶ 2). Prior to adoption of the land use amendments, the Tabas Property was located in the R-1 Zone district, which permitted the construction of two single-family dwellings per an acre. (Pls.' Stat., ¶ 9).

Eastampton is a municipal corporation organized and existing under the laws of the State of New Jersey. (Pls.' Stat., ¶ 3). The Council is the governing body of Eastampton, and is responsible for enacting land use ordinances, including those challenged in this action. (Pls.' Stat., ¶4). The Planning Board was created by the Council pursuant to the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law, N.J.S.A. 40:55D-23 et seq., and is responsible for adopting the comprehensive amendments to the Township's Master Plan. (Pls.' Stat., ¶5).

C. Eastampton's Referendum on Open Space

Beginning in 1997, residents of Eastampton expressed their concern about preserving open space. The Council received two petitions, consisting of more than 400 signatures, requesting that the Council (i) deny a development group's request for a zoning variance with respect to "DAC and Axelrad properties" to preserve open space, and (ii) preserve the Tabas Property in its undeveloped state. (Certif. of Richard V. Renzulli ("Renzulli Certif."), ¶ 2, attached to Defs.' Certif. as Ex. F).

In March 1998, Eastampton conducted a survey proposing the establishment of a Municipal Open Space and Farmland Preservation Program (the "Program") to enable Eastampton to participate in such preservation projects in partnership with the County of Burlington and the State of New Jersey. The survey stated that the principle aim of the Program "is to preserve properties which are the subject of possible residential development." (March 1998 Survey Materials attached to Pls.' Certif. as Ex. D). Examples of possible target areas for preservation included the properties specifically identified in the petitions, the DAC property, the Axelrad property, and the Tabas Property. The Tabas Property was described in the survey as "environmentally sensitive land," containing "wetlands and sensitive wildlife." (Id.).

The survey enumerated the benefits of the Program as: (i) preserving environmentally sensitive areas; (ii) avoiding the adverse fiscal impact of residential development on future tax rates; and (iii) maintaining the rural character of the community. (Id.). It proposed a three cent open space municipal tax, the proceeds of which would be used to purchase land that was slated for residential development. (Pls.' Stat., ¶ 10). Approximately eighty-four percent of the responding citizens approved of the open space municipal tax. (Renzulli Certif., ¶ 4).

In response to the results of the survey, the Council proposed Ordinances 1998-07 and 1998-08 in April 1998, which sought to curtail residential growth in the Town Center Zone and R-1A Zone districts. (Defs.' Stat., ¶ 12). The "Declaration" section of the proposed ordinances identified (i) the residents' desire for the preservation of open space, and (ii) the school system's inability to absorb a potential increase of "school age children," as reasons for decreasing the residential density of Town Center Zone and R-1A Zone districts. (Proposed Ordinances 1998-07 and 1998-08 attached to Pls.' Certif. as Exs. E & F). Ultimately, the proposed ordinances were withdrawn because the Council recognized that Eastampton's Master Plan had to be amended prior to adopting such downzoning ordinances. (Pls.' Stat., ¶ 16).

In June 1998, the Council sent a letter to its registered voters, asking for their support of the Program in the November 1998 general election ("June 1988 Letter"). (June 1998 Letter attached to Renzulli Certif. as Ex. A). The June 1998 Letter stated that the results of the March 1998 survey "indicate that Eastampton residents recognize the benefits of open space: preservation of our Community's environmental assets while precluding additional fiscal strain on local government in the form of higher school and other public services costs." (Id.).

The residents of Eastampton reaffirmed their commitment to an open space municipal tax in the general election, passing the referendum by a margin of seventy-six percent in favor to twenty-four percent against. (Tr. of November 30, 1998 Planning Board Meeting ("November 1998 Tr.") at 28, attached to Defs.' Certif. as Ex. L).

D. Master Plan Amendment

Pursuant to New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law, N.J.S.A. 40:55D-89, the Council and the Planning Board undertook a comprehensive re-examination of Eastampton's Master Plan and development regulations. (Planning Board Resolution 1999-03 ("Resolution 1999-03") at 1, attached to Defs.' Certif. as Ex. J). The "public sentiment" for open space was identified by the Planning Board as the "driving incentive" for the Master Plan re-examination process. (Tr. of October 14, 1998 Planning Board Meeting ("October 1998 Tr.") at 13-15, attached to Defs.' Certif. as Ex. K). Public meetings were held on September 16, October 7, October 14, October 21, and October 28, 1998, along with nine separate Planning Board hearings. (Defs.' Stat., ¶¶ 17-18).

During the series of Planning Board hearings, the Planner for Eastampton Township, Peter P. Karabashian Associates, Inc., P.P., presented its reports and recommendations outlining the proposed amendments to the Master Plan ("Master Plan Re-examination Report"). *fn4 (Resolution 1999-03 at 3). The Master Plan Re-examination Report consisted of several discrete parts, including (i) Statement of Goals and Objectives; (ii) Land Use Element; (iii) Housing Plan Element; (iv) Recycling Element; and (v) Relationship of Master Plan Elements to Master Plans of Contiguous Municipalities, Burlington County, and the State Development and Redevelopment Plan. (Master Plan Re-examination Report attached to Pls.' Certif. as Ex. I).

The goals identified by the Master Plan Re-examination Report included: (i) conservation of natural resources and systems; (ii) preservation and enhancement of the historic, cultural, scenic, open space and recreational values in the Township; (iii) promotion of beneficial economic growth and development; (iv) protection of environment; (v) provision of adequate facilities and services; and (vi) provision of adequate affordable housing. (November 1998 Tr. at 24). Moreover, the Master Plan Re-examination Report was developed in relation to Burlington County's Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program, the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, and surrounding municipalities' master plans. (Id. at 26-27, 54-64).

The Land Use Element of the Master Plan Re-examination Report noted that historically development in Eastampton had been concentrated in the center of the municipality, with the surrounding areas characterized by lower density agricultural or open space uses. (Master Plan Re-examination Report at LU-4). Pursuant to the stated goals and existing patterns of development in Eastampton, the Master Plan Re-examination Report proposed (i) the downzoning of environmentally sensitive areas; (ii) the creation of low density business park districts; and (iii) the designation of an area for low and moderate income housing. (Id. at LU-14). The proposed land use amendments were intended to create a "green belt" around the municipality's center to preserve "the historic open space and environmentally-sensitive areas of the community." (November 1998 Tr. at 24).

The Housing Element of the Master Plan Re-examination Report stated that the adoption of zoning regulations consistent with the Land Use Element would allow for the future development of 193 to 443 new housing units, 100 of which would be set aside as low or moderate income housing as required by a court order. (Master Plan Re-examination Report at H-6). Since 1960, the population in Eastampton had increased approximately four-fold. (Id. at H-9). Under the existing zoning ordinances, there was a potential for the development of 1815 to 2161 additional housing units, which, if built to the maximum allowable, was anticipated to double Eastampton's population of 5,985 residents. (November 1998 Tr. at 32). The Master Plan Re-examination Report stated that "[t]his continued high level of growth in population increases the potential impacts on facilities such as local schools, which are already at or near capacity, utilities, roads, open space, etc." (Master Plan Re-examination Report at H-6).

The Master Plan re-examination process was intended not only to preserve open space but also to increase the commercial tax base and to control residential growth. (Defs.' Stat., ¶ 10). During several Planning Board hearings, Planning Board and Council members expressed their concern about the impact of a "sprawl development" on Eastampton's infrastructure. (October 1998 Tr. at 37). Goal three of the Master Plan Re-Examination Report addressed their concern. One of the stated objectives of goal three is to "achieve a balance in the municipal tax base by providing for expanded business and commercial uses to offset the current residential imbalance." (Master Plan Re-examination Report at G&O-2).

The Master Plan Re-Examination Report was approved by the Planning Board on December 23, 1998, and formally adopted as the Master Plan Amendment pursuant to Planning Board Resolution 1999-03. (Defs.' Stat., ¶ 22). In adopting the Master Plan Amendment, the Planning Board stated that it was acting in conformity with the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Act. (Resolution 1999-03 at 5).

D. Ordinances 1999-03 and 1999-04

To implement the recommendations of the Master Plan Amendment, Ordinances 1999-03 and 1999-04 were introduced and ultimately adopted on March 8, 1999. These ordinances established new zoning districts and standards for properties located in Eastampton. (Defs.' Stat., ΒΆΒΆ 25, 26). Ordinance 1999-03 created new categories of zoning districts, and designated residential zoning districts as either low, medium, or high density. (Ordinance 1999-03 attached to Pls.' Certif. ...


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