May 12, 2009
F&E REALTY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
BOROUGH OF MORRIS PLAINS ZONING BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT AND RONALD CEGLIA, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, L-1863-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued February 24, 2009
Before Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Chambers.
In this appeal, plaintiff F&E Realty seeks to overturn the numerous variances extended to defendant-applicant Ronald Ceglia by defendant Borough of Morris Plains Zoning Board of Adjustment (the Board). The trial court affirmed the Board's resolution, and plaintiff has appealed. We affirm for the reasons set forth by the trial court.
The applicant Ceglia owns a corner lot on Route 10. The lot is oversized, consisting of 60,334 square feet; the minimum lot size for the area is 40,250 square feet. The property is located in the C-1 commercial zone, and borders the R-4 residential zone. It has a driveway opening from Route 10 that is at a fixed location that may not be changed due to requirements of the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
Ceglia seeks to construct two principal buildings, a gas station with a repair garage and a separate convenience store on the property. While a gas station, repair garage, and convenience store are all permitted uses in the C-1 zone, only one building for these uses is permitted on the lot under the zoning ordinance. As a result, a variance to allow two buildings was required. Further, a number of other variances were required in order to accommodate the two buildings on the lot, the mandated driveway opening, parking needs, circulation of traffic on the site, and other needs.
The Board held nine days of hearings on Ceglia's application for preliminary and final site plan approval, variances, and design waivers. At the hearings, Ceglia and his son testified, and Ceglia presented the testimony of numerous professionals. Plaintiff, the owner of a gas station located on Route 10, a divided highway, and across the street from applicant's property, opposed the application. Plaintiff presented the testimony of experts who raised a variety of concerns about the application. The Board also received input from its professional engineer and professional planner.
On May 21, 2007, the Board adopted a resolution approving the application, subject to various conditions. Plaintiff then filed this action in lieu of prerogative writ, appealing the Board's resolution. On February 14, 2008, the trial court affirmed the Board's decision.
On appeal, plaintiff contends that the record does not support the granting of the following variances by the Board:
(1) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(1) to permit two buildings to be constructed on the lot.
(2) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(3) to permit space of only 125 feet between one of the buildings and the nearest residential zone boundary, when the zoning ordinance requires that the distance be a minimum of 300 feet.
(3) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(3) to allow 37 parking spaces when the zoning ordinance requires 100 spaces.
(4) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c) to allow parking within the area of the front setback along Route 10 contrary to the provisions of the zoning ordinance.
(5) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c) to permit tandem parking without aisles contrary to the provisions of the zoning ordinance.
(6) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c) in order to allow a rear yard setback of 25.7 feet instead of the 50 feet setback required in the zoning ordinance.
(7) A variance under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(c) to permit an oversized sign.
"A municipal zoning board is entrusted with the sound discretion to determine whether an applicant has met the statutory criteria to obtain a variance," Nextel of N.Y., Inc. v. Borough of Englewood Cliffs Bd. of Adjustment, 361 N.J. Super. 22, 37-38 (App. Div. 2003), and its factual determinations are presumed valid. Ocean County Cellular Tel. Co. v. Twp. of Lakewood Bd. of Adjustment, 352 N.J. Super. 514, 521 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 175 N.J. 75 (2002). The law recognizes that "local officials are 'thoroughly familiar with their communities' characteristics and interests' and are best suited to make judgments concerning local zoning regulations."
Fallone Props., L.L.C. v. Bethlehem Twp. Planning Bd., 369 N.J. Super. 552, 561 (App. Div. 2004) (quoting Pullen v. Twp. of S. Plainfield Planning Bd., 291 N.J. Super. 1, 6 (App. Div. 1996)). "[P]lanning boards are granted 'wide latitude in the exercise of the delegated discretion' due to their 'peculiar knowledge of local conditions.'" Ibid. (quoting Burbridge v. Mine Hill Twp., 117 N.J. 376, 385 (1990)). Even where the wisdom of a board's determination is in doubt, we may not declare a board's action invalid unless there has been a clear abuse of discretion. Medici v. BPR Co., 107 N.J. 1, 15 (1987).
In our review, we apply the same standard as the trial court, N.Y. SMSA, L.P. v. Bd. of Adjustment of Weehawken, 370 N.J. Super. 319, 331 (App. Div. 2004), and must "determine whether or not the board acted within the statutory guidelines and properly exercised its discretion" and may not substitute our judgment for that of the board. Fallone Props., L.L.C. v. Bethlehem Twp. Planning Bd., supra, 369 N.J. Super. at 561. Our role is not to determine if the board could have reached a better decision, but rather whether if it "could reasonably have reached its decision." Ibid. (quoting Davis Enters. v. Karpf, 105 N.J. 476, 485 (1987)). We will reverse the board's determination only if that decision is found to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. Ocean County Cellular Tel. Co. v. Twp. of Lakewood Bd. of Adjustment, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 521.
Against these standards, we have carefully reviewed the record and arguments of counsel, and conclude that for the reasons set forth by Judge Bozonelis in his comprehensive decision placed on the record, the Board did not abuse its discretion in granting the variances at issue in this appeal.
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