The developer, owner of a parcel of undeveloped land located in a C-1 Neighborhood Commercial Zone, filed a site plan application to construct a professional and two retail buildings on its site. Although the application complied with the requirements of the C-1 Zone, residents asked the township council to rezone the property to Office Professional arguing that since the surrounding area was already largely developed, the current designation would create additional traffic, noise, dust, and pollution. The Council ultimately adopted an ordinance rezoning the parcel to Office Professional, although they recognized that their action was “inconsistent with the Master Plan,” they reasoned that the rezoning was appropriate because it would “prevent an intensification of traffic congestion” that could be created by the development of a commercial facility at the site. The Council further explained that rezoning was appropriate because, among other things, in comparison to commercial facilities, professional offices tended to have less “noise, lights and odors” and less traffic.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the Council’s action was (1) arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable; and (2) impermissible inverse spot zoning. The court noted that the ordinance was inconsistent with the Master Plan, was not adequately explained and arbitrarily imposed a burden on the property owner. The court explained that the state’s Municipal Land Use Law (“MLUL”) requires a municipality to, in adopting a zoning ordinance, either: (1) adopt an ordinance that was “substantially consistent” with the municipality’s Master Plan; or (2) explain its reasons for adopting an ordinance that was inconsistent with the Master Plan. That statutory directive, said the court, precluded a municipality from making its decision to adopt a zoning ordinance arbitrary.
The Council admitted that the rezoning was inconsistent with its Master Plan, and cited traffic concerns as the justification for its actions. The court found that the Council’s reasoning was “inadequate” because it failed “to point to any support for the concerns were “generic complaints.” Neither the Residents nor the Council provided any evidence that a commercial facility would actually generate greater traffic congestion than an office building. Even more striking, found the court, was the Council’s failure to explain why or how it “suddenly became appropriate” to apply the Office Professional designation to this parcel, which was zoned a C-1 and located along a corridor dotted with other areas so zoned. That lack of explanation “suggest[ed] that the choice was entirely arbitrary.” The court explained that to determine whether a zoning action was planned zoning or inverse spot zoning, the court looked at the intent and effect of the action. If the intent or effect of the action was to further a comprehensive scheme, then it was planned zoning. If the intent or effect was to benefit the neighboring community by imposing restrictions on a specific parcel that were contrary to the previously generated comprehensive plan and to the detriment of the rights of the parcel owner, then it was inverse spot zoning. Using this test, the court concluded that the ordinance constituted inverse spot zoning because of the combination of the facts that: the zoning for the parcel was changed; it would be more difficult for the owner to develop in accordance with the new designation when its proposed plan was completely in compliance with the C-1 Zone; the new designation was originally designed for an entirely different part of the town and for different planning purposes than the C-1 Zone; the neighboring property owners were the impetus for the rezone; and the township acted without hearing from expert planners or consultants.
Riya Finnegan LLC v. Township Council of the Township of South Brunswick, 2008 WL 5413099 (N.J., 12/22/2008).
The opinion can be accessed at: http://lawlibrary.rutgers.edu/decisions/supreme/a-65-07.opn.html
This abstract is based on one appearing in the West Quinlin’s Zoning Bulletin (2/0/2009).