Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 1, 2014

NJ Appeals Court Holds Retreat is Classified as “Transient Housing” and Did Not Meet the Definition of Family as Used in Town’s Zoning Ordinance

Plaintiff, Chai Lifeline, Inc. (“Lifeline”), is a corporation that owns a single-family residence in a residential zone in the Township of Mahwah (“Mahwah”). Lifeline used that property as a retreat for clients whose lives have been affected by life threatening illness or recent loss, and for counseling for recently widowed women (retreat). Clients were permitted to stay at the retreat for a couple of days. Lifeline appealed from the trial court’s order upholding the Mahwah Township Zoning Board’s (“Board”) determination that it did not meet the definition of family as used in its zoning ordinance and denying the application for a use variance.

In 1986, Mahwah enacted Ordinance 919 which defines “family” as “A group of persons functioning as a single housekeeping unit and whose relationship is of a permanent, stable and domestic character as distinguished from non-familial institutional uses, boarding homes, fraternities, sororities, clubs, associations, transient housing or other similar forms of housing.” In concluding the property was not being utilized as a single-family dwelling, the Board determined that Lifeline’s use was “transient housing,” which Ordinance 919 specifically distinguishes and excepts from the definition of family. The court reasoned that the Board and the trial court’s determinations were consistent with the case law in that they did not “disqualify” the visitors from the definition of “family,” but rather, the Board’s determinations found that Lifeline’s use of the property, in itself, did not fit the definition of “family.” Although the people who stayed at the retreat may constitute a “family” as defined by Ordinance 919, Lifeline’s use of the property was not consistent with the definition since visitors stayed for a short period of time.

As to the denial of the variance, the Board found the current residents of the neighborhood would be adversely affected by the introduction of this prohibited use into the neighborhood. Testimony was presented, and the Board found, the residential character of the neighborhood had changed in a negative manner, and would continue to be negatively affected. The court therefore found that the Board acted with sufficient evidence that it could not be said to have acted arbitrarily or capriciously.

Chai Lifeline, Inc. v Township of Mahwah, 2014 WL 4288927 (NJ Sup. 5/29/2014)

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