On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-2271-05.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Winkelstein and Fuentes.
Defendant, Township Council of South Brunswick, appeals from the decision of the Law Division invalidating municipal Ordinance 15-05, which rezoned plaintiff Riya Finnegan's property from a commercial development district to an office development district. The trial court held that the municipal legislation was arbitrary and capricious, because the Township Council did not have the benefit of expert testimony to support the expressed substantive basis for enacting the ordinance. The court also concluded that the ordinance constituted inverse spot zoning. Finnegan v. Twp. Council of S. Brunswick, 386 N.J. Super. 255, 268, 270 (Law Div. 2006).
After a careful review of the record, and in light of prevailing legal standards, we reverse. We hold that the trial court applied an incorrect standard of review in determining the validity of the municipal ordinance in question. In adopting this rezoning ordinance, the Township Council was performing a legislative function. As such, the Township Council was entitled to rely on the views expressed by the Township residents as a basis for enacting municipal legislation. We also hold that the ordinance does not constitute spot zoning, because the legislation's principal purpose furthered a comprehensive zoning scheme, and was not designed merely to relieve a lot or lots from the burden of a general regulation.
We will examine and discuss these issues in the following factual context.
Plaintiff is the owner of 12.69 acres of property in South Brunswick, identified as Block 92, Lot 7.01. The property is located at the northwest corner of the Township, at the intersection of Route 27 and Finnegans Lane.
In December 2001, the Township Council adopted a Master Plan ("Plan") for the land use and development of South Brunswick. The Plan was the result of a two-year study, which included numerous meetings of various committees, boards, and commissions. It included a detailed traffic analysis by the Alaimo Group, an engineering consultant firm.
In the Plan, plaintiff's property was zoned as a C-1 district for "neighborhood commercial land use." The Plan defined C-1 districts as follows:
The Neighborhood Commercial districts referred to as C-1 are located along the northern section of Route 27 and within the villages of South Brunswick, along Ridge Road in Monmouth Junction and along Georges Road in four locations: at the intersection of Deans Rhode Hall Road in Deans, adjacent to R-2, RM-4 and AH uses, at the intersection of Route 522 and at the intersection of Monmouth Junction Road in Dayton. The minimum lot size for this area is 10,000 square feet and is primarily designed for and limited to business uses of a retail and service type and professional offices. Restaurants and package goods are conditional uses, provided they do not directly abut a residential district. This district also permits mixed uses with businesses on the first floor and second story residences reflective of the village character. Most of the districts are developed.
On December 12, 2003, plaintiff filed a site plan application with the municipal planning board "for the development of a 14,690 square foot pharmacy with drive thru window, a 29,092 square foot retail building with 6,800 square feet second story office and a 9,000 square foot office building on the [p]roperty." At a meeting of the Township Council held approximately two months later, a group of area residents strongly urged the Township Council to rezone plaintiff's property to allow only office development, as opposed to commercial development. The residents' main concerns centered on overdevelopment, increased traffic in the area, and other like nuisances.
In particular, a resident named Alan Zublatt, who claimed to represent a large number of residents from the neighborhood in which plaintiff's property was located, discussed the results of a land-use analysis conducted in a three and one-quarter mile stretch of road near plaintiff's property:
Did you know that there are 106 commercial establishments consisting of both retail sales and retail service uses? Offices, churches, and governmental building types were not included in this survey. These uses that are there now include 29 food establishments, seven dry cleaners, five beauty salons, five service stations, excluding repair, five drug stores, including a pharmacy in Stop and Shop, four florists, . . . five banks and three supermarkets.
Zublatt also argued that the existing traffic problem would worsen with intensive commercial development because of shoppers and tractor-trailers making deliveries. He proposed a zoning change that would only allow the development of professional offices:
We believe professional offices are more compatible to the residential uses for the following reasons. A, there's a lack of nuisance element such as noise, light, and odors the shopping centers would have. B, retailers are open in the evening and on weekends, while offices, professional offices typically, although they could be, are not. It is the weekend that families in Brunswick Acres seek to use and enjoy their backyards without impact from retail use and activity. Walgreen's on Route 27 is open 24 hours a day. C, in many cases office serves as a good transition between commercial and residential. . . . D, certain types of commercial [ ] can become congregation points or hang outs, and I don't think people hang out, usually, at professional offices, if history is any teacher. E, offices generate traffic from the journey to work and journey from work hours, while retail traffic is continuous during the day and heavy on Saturday, adding to the existing heavy traffic flows and existing [traffic] stacking problems in the area . . . . And finally, the [aesthetics] of a well-designed professional office park, with a landscaped front lawn, is certainly superior to a shopping center with a front yard set back paved parking lot.
After the meeting, the Township Council referred the issue to the Planning Board, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-64. On February 16, the Planning Board held a meeting at which area residents again argued for rezoning. The Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend rezoning plaintiff's property to OP, and issued a report stating their recommendation to the Township Council. In the Plan, OP is defined as an Office Professional district, with the following zoning objective:
The purpose of this district is to permit planned office development along the Route 1 corridor, while incorporating design standards for buffers, building orientation, parking area and landscape. Some of the permitted uses include professional and medical offices, banks, health clubs, fitness centers and dance studios, travel agencies, conference centers, nursing homes, extended-stay facilities, child care, assisted living and laboratory or research facilities. The minimum lot area for this district is 3 acres. Some of the areas exhibit environmental constraints. Careful site planning will be required to insure aesthetic development respective of site specific characteristics.
At a Planning Board meeting held on March 8, 2005, residents again argued for the rezoning ...