Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 2, 2015

NJ Supreme Court Remands Claim for Conflict of Interest in Zoning Amendment Vote by Two Municipal Officials Based on Leadership Positions Held in Applicant Church

Plaintiff Richard Grabowsky challenged the validity of an ordinance adopted by the Township to permit the construction of an assisted living facility on a site located next to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church of Montclair. Plaintiff asserted that a statement made by Township Mayor Jerry Fried, a member of the Township Council and Planning Board, demonstrated that Fried had a direct personal interest in the development and should have been disqualified from voting on the zoning issue. Specifically, the alleged comment by the mayor that he might seek to admit his mother into the proposed facility. He also alleged that Fried and a second member of the Council, Nick Lewis, shared a disqualifying indirect personal interest in the development project because of their membership and more specifically, leadership positions in the Unitarian Church. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction barring the Township and Planning Board from considering or approving development applications for the assisted living facility. The trial court granted summary disposition and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. The Appellate Court found the dismissal improper but agreed there was no conflict of interest, and the plaintiff appealed.

As to the dismissal, the court found the trial court erred because the only motions before the trial court were defendants’ motions to intervene and plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Consequently, the parties had no opportunity to prepare a factual record to support or oppose summary disposition or argue the standard of Rule 4:67–1. It therefore found that plaintiff’s conflict-of-interest claims must be reinstated and considered on their merits. Accordingly, the court examined these claims, adhering to the principle that in order to determine whether there is a disqualifying interest, a court need not ascertain whether a public official has acted dishonestly or has sought to further a personal or financial interest; the decisive factor is “whether there is a potential for conflict.”

In determining whether a public official is disqualified from participating in a zoning application because of his or her affiliation with a church or other organization, the court found that the organization is deemed to have an interest in the application if it owns property within 200 feet of the property that is the subject of the application. In this case, due to the Unitarian Church’s status as the owner of property adjacent to the Church Street Lot, it clearly held an interest in the Fountain Square application to amend the Ordinance. The court instructed that on remand, the trial court should afford to the parties the opportunity to enter into a stipulation regarding the nature and timing of any leadership roles that were assumed, or were expected imminently to be assumed, by Fried and Lewis at the relevant time. It therefore reversed and remanded the proceedings.

Grabowsky v Township of Montclair, 2015 WL 3648741 (NJ 6/15/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://law.justia.com/cases/new-jersey/supreme-court/2015/a-53-13.html


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