On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Docket No. MRS-L-268-01PW.
Before Judges Pressler, Parrillo, and Payne.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Payne, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Bell Atlantic-New Jersey, Inc. (Verizon) operates a installation and maintenance work center and garage as a pre- existing nonconforming use in a PO-1 professional office district zone on the Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Riverdale. The site, which has been occupied by the telephone company for 44 years, is now used as a staging area for employees who install and maintain telecommunications lines and related equipment throughout much of Passaic, Morris and Sussex Counties and as a garage at which limited maintenance on repair vehicles is conducted. It is surrounded by a gas station, an armory, an electric service substation and a rail line. Following the addition in January 2000 of twenty employees to its staff with a concomitant need for parking that could not be safely and conveniently satisfied on site, Verizon applied to the Riverdale Zoning Board of Adjustment for a use variance pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d) to permit parking for a seven-year period for 40 employee cars on the property of a gas station, also operating as a nonconforming use, that abutted the access driveway to Verizon's site. The application was denied. Following appeal on the record below, Judge Stanton reversed and remanded the matter to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for approval of the use variance under appropriate conditions. The Board, in turn, appealed to the Appellate Division. We affirm the order of Judge Stanton substantially for the reasons set forth in his oral opinion of July 13, 2001.
We add the following comments. Under New Jersey's Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -136, a municipal Board of Adjustment may grant a "d" variance
[i]n particular cases for special reasons . . . to permit (1) a use . . . in a district restricted against such use . . . [or] (2) an expansion of a nonconforming use . . . . [N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70.]
No variance or other relief may be granted under the terms of this section, including a variance or other relief involving an inherently beneficial use, without a showing that such variance or other relief can be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and will not substantially impair the intent and the purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance. [Ibid.]
In a series of decisions capped by Medici v. BPR Co., 107 N.J. 1 (1987), the New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized that "certain commercial uses may inherently serve the general welfare in a particular community." Id. at 18. However, when an inherently beneficial use does not exist, a variance applicant seeking to demonstrate "special reasons" for approval of its application must establish that the site at issue is particularly appropriate for the proposed enterprise, thereby benefitting the general welfare. Ibid. Further, such applicants must establish by "an enhanced quality of proof" that the variance does not create a substantial detriment to the public good and "is not inconsistent with the intent and purpose of the master plan and zoning ordinance." Id. at 21. See also, e.g. Smart SMR v. Fair Lawn Bd. of Adj. 152 N.J. 309 (1998). In its resolution denying Verizon's application, the Board of Adjustment rejected Verizon's argument that the proposed use was inherently beneficial, finding that although some telephone company uses had met that standard, this one did not. *fn1 Rather, the Board found, "the requested use . . . [was] merely a commercial benefit for a commercial user" and "self-serving." Consequently, the Board required Verizon to demonstrate that its proposed use satisfied both the positive and negative criteria of N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d), and following multiple hearings, determined that it had failed to do so.
In large measure, the Board's decision that "special reasons" satisfying the statute's positive criteria had not been demonstrated was based upon its perception of Verizon as a solely commercial venture, whose lack of planning had led to the existing overcrowding, whose parsimony had thwarted a Board- advocated relocation to another site outside the municipality, whose flouting of existing zoning had led to the unauthorized use of the gas station site for parking during three years in the early 1990s, and whose inattention to the site had led to two occasions in which cars had been displayed for sale on the premises and one occasion in which truck maintenance had occurred in the facility's driveway, resulting in a small oil spill and overnight parking in an unauthorized location. The Board found that economic benefit to the owner of the station property, the convenience of Verizon employees, the relief of what the Board deemed to be self-inflicted overcrowding, and the high cost of alternate facilities did not constitute valid land use considerations.
Similarly, the Board found that Verizon had failed in its burden of establishing by enhanced proof compliance with the MLUL's negative criteria: that the proposed use was not inconsistent with the intent and purpose of the master plan and zoning ordinances and that the variance could be granted without substantial detriment to the public good. In this regard, the Board again noted Verizon's occasional misuse of its property for the sale and repair of vehicles. It noted as well that the use of the gas station property for parking would result in two nonconforming uses on that property, thereby creating "additional responsibility to the applicant" in circumstances in which Verizon had demonstrated inability to comply with its primary site management responsibilities.
We find, as did Judge Stanton, that the Board's characterization of Verizon solely as a commercial venture whose proposed expansion would benefit itself alone was unduly narrow, and that this perceptual error fatally infected all of the Board's subsequent conclusions, rendering them arbitrary and capricious. Kohl v. Mayor and Council of Fair Lawn, 50 N.J. 268, 275, 283 (1967). In doing so, we see no need to determine whether the use proposed by Verizon was inherently beneficial, since we agree with Judge Stanton that Verizon has met the more rigorous burden of establishing adequate special reasons for its proposed use. *fn2 In this regard, we note both the recent vast expansion of the means for telecommunication and our society's increasing reliance on them. Cf. Smart, supra, 152 N.J. 309, discussing the expansion of wireless communications. Such expansion carries with it a concomitant need for installation and repair, a need fulfilled by Verizon in this case by the operation of its tri-county utility and repair facility. Although we do not doubt that the telecommunications explosion has resulted in an increase in profits to Verizon, we regard as erroneous the Board's sole focus on this result as a ground for denying the requested variance. The increase in employees at the Riverdale facility resulted from public need as well as a profit motive.
When viewed in this fashion, the suitability of Verizon's proposal and its contribution to the public welfare is clear. In order to staff its maintenance and repair functions, Verizon required more employees. More employees resulted in increased parking needs. The Verizon site had space for 154 cars and utility trucks; Verizon needed 194. Both safety and efficiency were affected as a result. The space for the additional 40 cars existed on adjoining property that already was being used for non-conforming commercial purposes, and was not conveniently available elsewhere. The proposed site had previously been improved by gravel surfacing, perimeter fencing, and border planting. *fn3 The use of portions of the site for parking was not inconsistent with the permitted non-conforming use of the site as a gas station, since such stations commonly store cars awaiting repair. Moreover, the fact that the building on Verizon's property had reached maximum capacity and the fact that ...