Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 13, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in NJ Denies Church’s Motions for Injunctive Relief Following Denial of Site Plan Application

As its current lease was set to expire in 2014, Plaintiff North Jersey Vineyard Church purchased a property at 310 Phillips Avenue in South Hackensack (the “Phillips Property”). The Phillips Property was zoned for mixed use and did not allow for houses of worship. The Church submitted an application for a variance, which included a traffic impact analysis, a planning report, and an engineer’s report. The Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously denied the application. The Church then filed suit against the Township, alleging a variety of claims including a facial challenge of the Township’s Zoning Code. The parties reached a settlement in which the Township allegedly agreed to amend the zoning code to allow houses of worship in mixed use districts and agreed that the existing parking lot was sufficient for the building. Based on this settlement, the Church states that it concluded its purchase of the Phillips Property for $3 million.

The Church’s application for site plan approval was heard on August 27, 2015. However, prior to this hearing, the Township Planner informed the Church that, while it met the parking requirements for the sanctuary, it was deficient 116 spaces for non-sanctuary space, since it needed to provide one spot per 200 square feet for such purposes. The Board then voted to deny the Church’s Site Plan, allegedly without providing any information or reason for the denial.

Following the denial, the Church initiated the instant action seeking a reversal of the Township Planning Board’s decision and monetary damages. The Church then filed a motion to serve third-party subpoenas prior to the Rule 26(f) conference, and asked the Court to order the Township to vacate the Township Planning Board’s denial and allow it to use the Phillips Property pending a final adjudication by the court.

The Court found that the Church’s First Amendment freedoms were not chilled, since the Church continued to have use of the Teterboro Property to conduct its religious services. Additionally, the parking issue did not directly penalize the Church’s First Amendment right, but instead only incidentally inhibited it. As such, the court found that the Church’s cursory assertions of a chilling effect on its right to worship failed to show irreparable harm to justify the relief sought. Moreover, a party seeking injunctive relief must show not only irreparable injury, but that such harm is immediate, rather than a remote or speculative possibility. Here, because the Township Resolution calling for a preliminary investigation failed to amount to an imminent or presently existing threat necessitating injunctive relief, the court found that the Church had not established harm to its property rights sufficient to warrant a preliminary injunction. Finally, as the church never occupied the Phillips Property, this was not an attempt to maintain the status quo, but rather change it by way of an order from the court. As such, the Church’s motion for a preliminary injunction was denied.

North Jersey Vineyard Church v Town of South Hackensack, 2016 WL 1365997 (D NJ 4/6/2016)

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