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Rumson Estates, Inc. v. Mayor & Council of the Borough of Fair Haven

August 05, 2003

RUMSON ESTATES, INC., A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MAYOR & COUNCIL OF THE BOROUGH OF FAIR HAVEN, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND FAIR HAVEN PLANNING BOARD, DEFENDANT.
FERRARO BUILDERS, LLC AND RAND ASSOCIATES, A NEW JERSEY PARTNERSHIP, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
BOROUGH OF ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS PLANNING BOARD AND BOROUGH OF ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issues before the Court in these consolidated matters are: 1) whether a municipality may enact a zoning ordinance that alters the definitions in the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -136; and 2) whether zoning regulations may make provision for different conditions within a zone without violating the uniformity principle of the MLUL.

Rumson Estates

The municipality of Fair Haven is approximately one square mile. In 1999, Fair Haven changed the zoning of William Street from R-7.5 (requiring sixty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 7,500 square feet) to R-5 (requiring fifty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet). The zoning ordinance included a maximum floor area ratio of.40. This ratio basically limits habitable floor area to a percentage of the total lot. In addition, the floor area was capped at 2,200 square feet for all single-family dwellings and the lesser of the floor area ratio or the cap controls.

Rumson Estates, Inc. owns approximately 27,000 square feet of property in Fair Haven that it proposed to subdivide into three lots of fairly equal size. In applying the floor area ratio, Rumson Estates would have been able to build three lots of about 3,600 square feet; however, the cap limited the lots to 2,600 square feet. The Fair Haven Planning Board (Planning Board) denied Rumson Estate's application for a subdivision and variance to exceed the cap. Thereafter, Rumson Estates filed an action in Lieu of Prerogative Writs in the Law Division, claiming, among other things, that the cap was ultra vires (unauthorized, beyond the scope of power allowed by law) because it altered the MLUL definition of "lot" and thus skewed the MLUL definition of "floor area ratio."

While the action was pending, Rumson Estates refiled its subdivision application without the floor area variance request, and the Planning Board granted approval subject to the cap. Thereafter, Rumson Estates moved for summary judgment, citing the Appellate Division decision in Manalapan Builders Alliance, Inc. v. Township Comm. of Manalapan for the proposition that the cap was ultra vires because it violated the definition of floor area ratio in the MLUL. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that Fair Haven's purpose in enacting the cap, which was to diversify the town's residential housing stock by allowing for smaller, more affordable construction, was a legitimate one, and that Rumson Estates did not defeat the presumption in favor of the cap's validity.

On appeal, a majority of the Appellate Division affirmed, observing that Fair Haven's purposes in enacting the ordinance were legitimate goals of ensuring the proportionality of new construction to other homes in the zone and providing affordable housing in a municipality with limited area and housing stock. The court upheld the cap as an exercise of the municipality's authority under the MLUL to regulate the size of structures by using, in addition to floor area ratios, "other ratios and regulatory techniques." The court distinguished Manalapan Builders because the cap did not violate a definition in the MLUL. One judge dissented, concluding that if redefining the formula for floor area ratio to achieve the salutary goal of protecting environmentally sensitive land is ultra vires under Manalapan Builders, then it is also impermissible to "manipulate" the definition by use of a cap.

The matter is before the Court as of right, based on the dissenting opinion in the Appellate Division.

Ferraro Builders

Rand Associates is the titleholder and Ferraro Builders, LLC is the contract purchaser of property in the R-2 zone of Atlantic Highlands. The Borough of Atlantic Highlands Planning Board (Planning Board) granted a threelot subdivision. Each lot exceeded what was then the R-2 zone minimum lot size of 15,000 square feet. After subdivision approval, the governing body of Atlantic Highlands adopted a steep slope ordinance. The ordinance was passed in response to a landslide that had blocked the roadway and inhibited egress and ingress to the area, as well as barring access to emergency vehicles. According to the municipality, the purpose of the ordinance was to avoid such occurrences by diminishing soil disturbance on the slope and preventing "slump blocking."

After the adoption of the steep slope ordinance, Ferraro Builders and Rand (hereinafter Ferraro Builders) built houses on two of their lots. The proposed structure on the third lot exceeded the maximum lot disturbance when the slope factors were applied. Ferraro Builders' application for a slope-area permit was denied. They appealed to the Planning Board, which held that Ferraro Builders had failed to prove that the permit request was denied improperly, arbitrarily, or capriciously. Thereafter, Ferraro Builders filed a Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs claiming, among other things, that under Manalapan Builders, the "steep slope" ordinance was facially invalid because it changed certain definitions in the MLUL; and that the ordinance violated the uniformity requirement of the MLUL by applying a different standard to sloped areas than was applicable to flat areas in the zone. The trial court upheld the ordinance and, on appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted certification.

HELD: With a narrow exception, the MLUL does not preclude a municipality from adopting a zoning ordinance that defines terms differently from the definitions in the MLUL. In addition, the notion of uniformity does not prohibit classifications within a district so long as they are reasonable and so long as all similarly situated property receives the same treatment.

1. The MLUL is a comprehensive statute enabling municipalities to adopt ordinances regulating land development in a manner that promotes public health, safety, morals, and general welfare through the use of uniform and consistent procedures. Every zoning ordinance must advance at least one of the many goals of the MLUL. Zoning ordinances are presumptively valid and the challenger has the burden of proving that the presumption should be overcome. Moreover, zoning ordinances are to be liberally construed in the municipality's favor. (Pp. 10-14)

2. When a defined term is used in the MLUL, it will have a specified meaning. However, there is nothing in the legislative history or in the MLUL itself to suggest that the Legislature intended the definitional language to constitute a broad prohibition on municipal zoning initiatives. If the MLUL had provided that the exclusive method available to a municipality for controlling intensity of residential land was floor area ratio and had defined the term, both the method and the definition would be binding. The MLUL specifically provides authority for municipalities to use a number of methods to control the intensity of residential use. There is nothing in the statutory scheme to suggest that the Legislature sought to preclude or otherwise limit the use of other ratios or regulatory techniques either alone or in combination with floor area ratio. In adopting the cap, Fair Haven used another regulatory technique in conjunction with floor area ratio. Likewise, Atlantic Highlands adopted another ratio and applied a slope factor to the total land area. Neither of those initiatives were ultra vires. (Pp. 15-21)

3. A municipality may enact a zoning ordinance that alters non-mandatory definitions in the MLUL. Similarly, in regulating the intensity of land use, a municipality may adopt not only a floor area ratio based on the relationship between the lot and the buildings, but any other ratio or regulatory technique that advances the goal of the MLUL. To the extent that Manalapan Builders reached a different conclusion, it is disapproved. (P. 21)

4. A central and overriding purpose of the MLUL is statewide uniformity of process and practices in the areas of zoning and land use. The statute provides that zoning ordinance regulations "shall be uniform throughout each district for each class or kind of buildings or other structures or uses of landà" Another basis for the uniformity requirement is the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection that guard against the arbitrary and unreasonable exercise of police power. Rumson Estates and Ferraro Builders misinterpret this uniformity principle. Uniformity does not prohibit classifications within a district so long as they are reasonable. Rational regulations based on different conditions within a zone are permissible so long as similarly situated property is treated the same. (Pp. 21-25)

5. As found by the Appellate Division, Ferraro Builders and Rumson Estates did not overcome the presumption of validity of the ordinances they challenged. Fair Haven advanced two legitimate rationales for the cap: diversification of housing stock and control of residential density. Likewise, the reasons underlying Atlantic Highlands steep slope ordinance - avoidance of soil erosion and "slump blocking" - are legitimate environmental goals of the MLUL. The rationales underlying these ordinances are reasonably related to the purposes of zoning. That is not to suggest that these zoning initiatives are the "best" ways or even successful ways to achieve the stated purposes. Rather, they are rational approaches to real problems and Rumson Estates and Ferraro Builders failed to prove otherwise. (Pp. 25-29)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, and ALBIN join in JUSTICE LONG'S opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Long, J.

Argued February 20, 2003

Two basic issues are presented by these appeals.*fn1 The first is whether a municipality may enact a zoning ordinance that alters the definitions in the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -136. The second is whether zoning regulations may make provision for different conditions within a zone without violating the uniformity principle of N.J.S.A. 40:55D-62a. We hold that, with a narrow exception, the MLUL does not preclude a municipality from adopting a zoning ordinance that defines terms differently from the definitions in the MLUL. We also hold that the notion of uniformity does not prohibit classifications within a district so long as they are reasonable and so long as all similarly situated property receives the same treatment.

I.

A. Rumson Estates v. Mayor & Council of Borough of Fair Haven

Fair Haven is a fully developed municipality of approximately one square mile. Its population of 6,000 is basically dispersed among single lot construction and small subdivisions. In 1999, as part of a comprehensive revision of its Development Regulations, Fair Haven changed the zoning of the William Street block from R-7.5 (requiring sixty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 7,500 square feet) to R-5 (requiring fifty feet of frontage and a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet). It included a maximum floor area ratio of.40. Such a ratio essentially limits habitable floor area to a percentage of the total lot. The ordinance also capped the floor area at 2,200 square feet for all single-family dwellings in the district. Under the ordinance, the smaller of the floor area ratio or the cap applies.

Plaintiff, Rumson Estates, Inc., is the owner of an approximately 27,000 square foot parcel of property in Fair Haven that it proposed to subdivide into three lots of fairly equal size. Each lot was to have fifty feet of frontage, a depth of 181.5 feet and a total area of 9,066.4 square feet. Applying the floor area ratio only, plaintiff would have been able to build a house of approximately 3,600 square feet on each lot. However, the cap limited plaintiff to 2,200 square feet.

After the Fair Haven Planning Board denied the application for a subdivision and a variance to exceed the cap, plaintiff filed a Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs claiming, among other things, that the cap was ultra vires because it altered the MLUL definition of "lot" and thus skewed the MLUL definition of "floor area ratio." The gist of that argument was that the cap interfered with the relationship between floor area and total land area, which is at the heart of the MLUL definition of floor area ratio.

While the matter was pending in the Law Division, plaintiff refiled its subdivision application without the floor area variance request, and the Fair Haven Planning Board granted approval subject to the cap. Thereafter, plaintiff moved for summary judgment, citing the Appellate Division decision in Manalapan Builders Alliance, Inc. v. Township Comm. of Manalapan, 256 N.J. Super. 295 (1992), for the proposition that the cap was ultra vires because it violated the definition of floor area ratio in the MLUL. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that Fair Haven's purpose in enacting the cap, which was to diversify the town's residential housing stock by allowing for smaller, more affordable construction, was a legitimate one, and that plaintiff did not defeat the presumption in favor of the cap's validity.

Plaintiff appealed. Before the Appellate Division, plaintiff reiterated its argument that the cap violated the floor area ratio definition in the MLUL and was ultra vires.

The Appellate Division disagreed. In a ruling penned by Judge Carchman, the court began its analysis with the presumption of validity of the zoning ordinance and the absence of a provision restricting Fair Haven from enacting a cap. Rumson Estates, Inc. v. Mayor & Council of Fair Haven, 350 N.J. Super. 324, 331-32 (App. Div. 2002). Proceeding, the court observed that Fair Haven's putative purposes in enacting the ordinance were the legitimate goals of ensuring the proportionality of new construction to other homes in the zone and providing affordable housing in a municipality with limited area and housing stock. Id. at 329. The court upheld the cap as an exercise of the municipality's authority to regulate the size of structures, by using, in addition to floor area ratios, "other ratios and regulatory techniques." Id. at 331-32. In so doing, the court distinguished Manalapan Builders because the cap did not violate a definition in the MLUL. Id. at 330. The dissenting judge, Judge Wells, concluded that if redefining the formula for floor area ratio to achieve the salutary goal of protecting environmentally sensitive land is ultra vires under Manalapan Builders, then it is also impermissible to "manipulate" the definition by use of a cap. Id. at 334 (Wells, J., dissenting).

The matter is before us as of right because of the dissent in the Appellate Division. R. 2:2-1(2). We accorded amicus status to ...


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