On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-2037-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Payne and Waugh.
Defendants Township of Ewing, Mayor of Ewing, and Ewing Township Council (collectively Township) appeal the invalidation of three municipal ordinances, each of which was intended to address perceived problems created by the density of rental housing associated with students attending the College of New Jersey, which is located in Ewing Township (Ewing) in Mercer County. The ordinances (1) increased minimum square-footage requirements for rental units; (2) required the licensing and inspection of certain rental properties; and (3) required off-street parking for all licensed drivers residing in rental properties located in certain zoning districts.
Plaintiffs Ewing Citizens for Civil Rights, Inc., a notfor-profit corporation composed of rental property owners and residents, among others, and James J. Sanocki, a Ewing resident and the owner of seven rental properties in Ewing, challenged the ordinances in an action in lieu of prerogative writ.*fn1 The Law Division judge concluded that the ordinances were "unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious" and invalidated them. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
We discern the following facts from the record.
Prior to 2004, the Township's primary means of regulating its existing residential properties with respect to issues such as overcrowding and property maintenance was enforcement of the minimum safety standards in its Property Maintenance Code (Code), which the Township adopted by reference to the 1998 International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC). The IPMC does not differentiate between owner-occupied and rental residential properties.
The Code was enforced, in part, through the Township's certification of occupancy ordinance, which requires the issuance of a certificate of occupancy whenever there is a change in the occupancy of a residential dwelling unit, whether the unit is owned or rented. A certificate of occupancy would be issued only after one or more code officials had inspected the housing unit for compliance with zoning laws, the IPMC, and any other applicable safety codes.
During several years leading up to the adoption of the ordinances at issue, Township officials received complaints from Ewing residents regarding "college rentals." The complaints generally related to obnoxious behavior, overcrowding, illegal parking, and property maintenance deficiencies. According to one of the Township's witnesses, the problems arose primarily from college rentals in smaller properties, rather than larger properties, those with three or more units, subject to the New Jersey Hotel and Multiple Dwellings Act, N.J.S.A. 55:13A-12.
In response to these complaints, the Township enacted three ordinances: Ordinance 04-15, which increased the minimum square footage requirements for non-sleeping and sleeping areas in rental units; Ordinance 04-17, which required registration of rental units and the licensing and annual inspection of residential rental properties with less than three units, as well as inspection upon a change in occupancy; and Ordinance 5-07, which required all residential rental properties located in certain zoning districts to provide one off-street parking space for every licensed driver residing at the property, without regard to the number of vehicles actually in use.*fn2
In the complaint filed in the Superior Court following dismissal of the federal claims by the federal district court, plaintiffs alleged that the ordinances violated their rights under (1) the New Jersey Constitution, specifically Article I, Paragraph 1; (2) the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49; and (3) the Municipal Land Use Law, N.J.S.A. 40:55D-1 to -163. The Township filed an answer, and discovery ensued. The Township filed a motion for summary judgment, but the trial judge concluded that an evidentiary hearing was required to resolve the issues raised in the complaint. The hearing was held on July 11, 2008. On January 8, 2009, the trial judge issued a written decision and entered an order invalidating all three of the ordinances. This appeal followed.
In this appeal, we are asked to review a decision reached by the trial judge following a bench trial. "The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). We do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial court unless we are convinced that "'they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Id. at 412 (quoting Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 484); see also Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 496 (1981). It appears, however, that the Township challenges the trial judge's legal conclusions, rather than his factual findings. "Whether the facts found by ...