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Price v. Union City Zoning Board of Adjustment and GBTC Properties


July 9, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, L-0198-06.

Per curiam.


Argued June 3, 2008

Before Judges Fuentes, Grall and Waugh.

Plaintiff Larry Price appeals from an order of the Law Division dismissing his action in lieu of prerogative writs.

Price challenged the Union City Zoning Board of Adjustment's grant of a "conditional use variance" for the construction of a seven-story (above-grade) apartment building in an "R" residential zone in which a "high rise" apartment building of more than three stories is a prohibited use.

Defendant GBTC Properties, L.L.C., initially sought approval for the construction of a fifty-six unit residential building with seven levels of apartments above three levels of parking, one of which was below grade level. It subsequently revised the proposal to forty-two residential units with five levels of apartments above three levels of parking, one of which would be below grade level. For the sake of clarity, the revised proposal will be referred to as a seven-story building, seven being the number of stories above grade level.

The building was to be constructed in an "R" mixed residential zone. Under existing zoning regulations in Union City, an apartment building of seven stories is not a principal use permitted in the R zone. The question before us is whether it was a "conditional use" because it constituted a "limited multi-family development," an undefined term, or a prohibited use because it constituted an "Apartment House, High Rise," which is defined as "[a] residential structure of more than three stories containing three or more dwelling units and containing a heating plant which supplies heat to all tenants." Section 18-3.6 of the City of Union City Zoning Ordinance.

Following a public hearing, the Board approved the project and granted a "use variance," pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(1), for the construction of the proposed seven-story building in the R zone. Price filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs challenging that decision. On December 6, 2006, the trial judge remanded the matter to the Board because he determined that the memorializing resolution was "inarticulate" and did not adequately explain the Board's findings and their factual basis.

Rather than explaining its findings and their factual basis, however, the Board held a relatively brief discussion on remand and issued another memorializing resolution on February 22, 2007. That resolution approved the project with a "conditional use variance" under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(3). By order dated June 29, 2007, the trial court dismissed Price's action with prejudice, concluding that the Board had the authority to consider the application as a "conditional use variance" and to "interpret and implement its zoning ordinance."

Price initially challenges the Board's determination to switch legal theories from "use variance" to "conditional use variance," arguing that the height restrictions of Section 18- 3.6 of the zoning ordinance is clearly applicable and precludes consideration of a "conditional use variance." We agree and remand the matter to the Board for further consideration not inconsistent with this opinion. We need not, therefore, reach the other issues argued on appeal.

The principal permitted multi-family use in the "R" zone consists of two-to-four family dwellings. One of the conditional uses for this zone is: "Limited multi-family developments: (See Note 21). Subject to Site Plan Approval by the Planning Board." There is no specific definition in the zoning ordinance of "Limited multi-family developments." However, "Note 21" of the zoning ordinance provides that limited multi-family developments should meet the following requirements:

(1) A sufficient land aggregate can be assembled to provide a site of at least 10,000 square feet.

(2) Such multi-family development would be compatible with the neighborhood in which it is contemplated, to be determined during the planning board's review for site plan approval.

(3) The requirements for garden apartment developments, as contained in Note 12, shall be met by the applicant.

Section "(6)" of "Note 12" provides that "[n]o garden apartment building shall exceed a height of three and one-half stories or 50 feet . . . ." Section 18-3.5 defines "Apartment House, Garden-Type" as a "residential structure of not more than three stories containing three or more dwelling units."

The issue, then, is whether the Board, and subsequently the trial judge, erred in concluding that the governing zoning provisions permitted consideration of GBTC's proposed seven-story building in the context of a "conditional use variance," as opposed to a "use variance," which is how the Board considered it initially.

We use the same standard of review required of the trial court. N.Y. SMSA v. Bd. of Adjustment, 370 N.J. Super. 319, 331 (App. Div. 2004). We begin with a presumption of validity, Jock v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 184 N.J. 562, 597 (2005), and with the understanding that we are not to substitute our judgment on factual matters for that of the Board, Fallone Prop. v. Bethlehem Planning Bd., 369 N.J. Super. 552, 561 (App. Div. 2004). Clearly, however, the interpretation of a zoning ordinance is a legal issue, ultimately resolvable by courts. N.Y. SMSA v. Bd. of Adjustment, supra, 370 N.J. Super. at 331.

An ordinance should generally be read sensibly, and not literally, to achieve its intended result. In re Expungement of W.S., 367 N.J. Super. 307, 311 (App. Div. 2004) (citations omitted). However, "[w]hen the words in a statute are clear, and their literal application is compatible with the overall legislative design, the interpretive process is satisfied by enforcement of the plain meaning of the words." Jones v. Naser City Trans. Corp., 388 N.J. Super. 513, 514 (App. Div. 2006).

GBTC acknowledges that the definition of high rise in Section 18-3.6, a "residential structure of more than three stories," is "clear and unambiguous," but argues that its clarity does not "make it logical or avoid absurd results." Nevertheless, while the Board undoubtedly had the authority to interpret the zoning ordinance, it did not have the authority to ignore its provisions.

Similarly, the lack of specific definitions for the other terms involved, such as "Limited, Multi-family development," did not warrant the Board's apparent decision to ignore the clear language of Section 18-3.6 of the zoning ordinance. This is especially so because, as noted above, a "Limited, Multi-family development" must meet the requirements for garden apartments, which includes a three-story maximum. Consequently, there was no conditional use option for a building higher than three stories in the "R" zone.

Because GBTC's seven-story project was not eligible for a "conditional use variance," we vacate the judgment below and remand the matter to the Board to consider whether the project merits a "use variance" under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(1) and, if so, to explain its findings of fact and conclusions of law clearly as previously ordered by the trial judge, so that there can be meaningful judicial review.

Vacated and remanded.


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