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Weidel v. Planning Board of the Township of Wall

July 27, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-174-08.

Per curiam.


Argued May 4, 2009

Before Judges Lisa and Sapp-Peterson.

Plaintiffs, Charles and Adrianna Weidel, appeal from the May 12, 2008 Law Division order dismissing their complaint in lieu of prerogative writs for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm.

Plaintiffs reside in the Township of Wall (Township), where defendant, Sunnyside Manor, Inc. (Sunnyside), plans to erect a healthcare facility at 2500 Ridgewood Road (the property). Sunnyside is also the owner and operator of a healthcare facility on Ramshorn Drive in the Township. The facility on Ramshorn Drive consists of nursing home and assisted living units. In March of 1998, Sunnyside filed a land use application with the Township's Board of Adjustment (Board). The application sought use and bulk variance approval to expand Sunnyside's existing facility on Ramshorn Drive. After multiple hearings, the Board denied Sunnyside's application.

In June of 2002, Sunnyside filed an action, which was later amended on May 9, 2005, in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey against the Township and the Board, alleging that the Board's denial of Sunnyside's application violated the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 3601 to 3631, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 12101 to 12213.

The parties negotiated a settlement which was memorialized in a consent order signed by the court on November 17, 2006. The relevant portion of the judgment provided that: (1) Sunnyside had the right to purchase property located on Ridgewood Road owned by Elaine Stevens; (2) the Township agreed to enact a Mount Laurel Congregate Care ordinance similar to a township ordinance that addressed such issues as setbacks, density, impervious coverage and height; (3) the proposed new facility was declared to be "inherently beneficial," thereby negating the issuance of any variances; (4) Sunnyside had the right to prepare and file its site plan application for approval and the Township was required to "hear and approve Sunnyside's application within thirty (30) days"; and (5) as long as defendant purchased Elaine Stevens' property, Sunnyside had the right to file an application for subdivision approval of the existing Sunnyside property.

More specifically, the order provided that Sunnyside would make two separate applications to the Township's planning board. The first application would seek subdivision approval to create eight residential lots on Sunnyside's property located on Ramshorn Drive, and the second application would seek site plan approval to construct a new health care facility with nursing home and assisted living units on the 2500 Ridgewood Road site.

The consent order provided that the Township's planning board should hear and approve Sunnyside's applications within thirty days after the date the application is deemed complete. The order also expressly provided that the district court would retain jurisdiction to enforce its terms.

At the time Sunnyside and the Township reached their agreement, Sunnyside had not yet become the record owner of title to the property. Under the consent order, however, Sunnyside had the right to purchase the property from its then owner, Elaine Stevens, or the Township, if the Township purchased the property from Stevens. Stevens conveyed title to the property to the Township in July 2007. Stevens was represented in the transaction by counsel, who is the attorney of record for plaintiffs in this appeal.

Also in July 2007, Sunnyside submitted an application for preliminary and final site plan approval with variances to relocate what is known as Sunnyside Nursing Home to the property. The planning board conducted a public hearing on the application on October 22, 2007, at which time plaintiffs appeared and objected to Sunnyside's application. The planning board granted Sunnyside's application in a resolution dated December 3, 2007.

On January 9, 2008, plaintiffs filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs in the Law Division seeking an order setting aside the planning board's resolution granting Sunnyside's application. The complaint named the planning board and Sunnyside as defendants.*fn1 It did not, however, name the Township and Board, who were the parties in Sunnyside's federal action. Thereafter, Sunnyside filed a motion seeking the dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(a), which the Law Division judge granted. The present appeal followed.

On appeal, plaintiffs essentially argue (1) the court committed reversible error when it concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction; (2) Sunnyside failed to meet its burden to establish "that the federal court has jurisdiction to hear [plaintiffs'] application and the trial court misapplied the law"; (3) under New Jersey law and the doctrine of special equities, plaintiffs' complaint must be heard in the Law Division; and (4) the trial court made no findings of fact and conclusions of law that warrant dismissal of the complaint on grounds of comity. We are not persuaded by any of plaintiffs' arguments and ...

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