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J.P. Stewart Development, LLC v. Medford Township Zoning Board of Adjustment

August 24, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-461-08.

Per curiam.


Argued July 7, 2009

Before Judges Grall and Gilroy.

Defendant Medford Township Zoning Board of Adjustment (Board) appeals from the September 10, 2008 order of the Law Division that reversed its denial of plaintiff J.P. Stewart Development, LLC's application for bulk variances to construct a single-family dwelling on property known as Block 6502, Lot 4 (the property), Medford Township. We affirm.

The property is located on Gravelly Hollow Road and in the Reserve Growth District-1 (RGD-1) zone. Plaintiff purchased the pre-existing, non-conforming, triangular-shaped lot on March 26, 2004, subject to the then-existing zoning requirements. The property is undersized for the zone, containing 0.6847 acres (after an 8.25-foot dedication for a public right-of-way along Gravelly Hollow Road), whereas 3.2 acres is the minimum area required for a buildable lot.

On November 30, 2006, plaintiff filed an application pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70c(1) seeking four bulk variances to construct a 2,200 square foot two-story home on the property. In addition to the variance from the minimum lot area requirement, plaintiff also sought variances from the Township's land use development ordinance for: 1) lot depth - the ordinance required 225 feet, whereas 85.42 feet was proposed; 2) front yard setback - the ordinance required 50 feet, whereas 25.5 feet was proposed; and 3) rear yard setback - the ordinance required 50 feet, whereas 26.1 feet was proposed. The application was reviewed by the Board's engineer. Although the engineer recommended several conditions, he refrained from recommending either approval or denial of the application.

The Board conducted a hearing on the application on October 17, 2007. At that hearing, plaintiff presented testimony from its principal, J.P. Stewart; its construction manager, John Schweppenheiser; and its land use expert, James Miller, a licensed professional planner. At the end of plaintiff's presentation to the Board, eight nearby property owners spoke against the application for various reasons. On November 19, 2007, the Board voted to deny the application; on January 16, 2008, the Board adopted a memorializing resolution.

On February 13, 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, challenging the Board's decision. Following submission of trial briefs, Judge Bookbinder issued an eight-page tentative, written disposition in the action, reversing the Board's decision as arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. In so doing, Judge Bookbinder reasoned that the Board's: 1) action rendered plaintiff's property useless; 2) resolution failed "to state with any specificity the facts grounded in the record upon which th[e] decision was reached"; and 3) resolution failed to address the negative and positive criteria required for the grant of a variance. On September 10, 2008, the court entered a confirming order reversing the Board's decision and granting plaintiff's application for variances pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70c(1), subject to certain conditions as previously agreed upon by plaintiff at the hearing before the Board.

On appeal, the Board argues that the trial court erred in reversing its decision. The Board contends that the trial court not only failed to give substantial deference to its decision denying the application, but also improperly substituted its own judgment for that of the Board's. We disagree.

On appeal from a decision of a municipal board on zoning and planning matters, the trial court is limited to determining whether the Board's decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious. Cell South of N.J. v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 172 N.J. 75, 81 (2002); Kramer v. Bd. of Adjustment, 45 N.J. 268, 296 (1965). A local board's decision is presumed valid, and the party challenging the decision has the burden proving otherwise. Cell South, supra, 172 N.J. at 81. In reviewing a local decision, the court must determine whether the board followed the statutory guidelines and properly exercised its discretion. Burbridge v. Governing Body of Mine Hill, 117 N.J. 376, 385 (1990). Because variances tend to impair sound zoning, a court should give "greater deference to variance denials than to grants of variances." Med. Ctr. v. Princeton Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 343 N.J. Super. 177, 199 (App. Div. 2001). The standard of review is the same for both the Law Division and the appellate tribunal. Bressman v. Gash, 131 N.J. 517, 528-29 (1993).

We have considered the Board's arguments in light of the record and applicable law. We are not persuaded by them and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Bookbinder in his written decision of August 14, 2008. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E).


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