A Spot Zoning Claim Gets Raised in a Recent NJ Zoning Case

HNWReal Estate, Landlord/Tenant, and Zoning

zoning and land use

  • Spot zoning refers to a zoning ordinance that “benefit[s] particular private interests rather than the collective interests of the community.”
  • If an ordinance is enacted to advance the general welfare of the municipality of a comprehensive land use plan, it is unobjectionable even if the ordinance was initially proposed by private parties and these parties are in fact its ultimate beneficiaries.

The Issues in Conflict

Homeowners understandably do not want commercial neighbors, especially high intensity, heavy traffic new neighbors.

In a recent case, a municipal governing board adopted an ordinance modifying the zoning regulations in one of the township’s zoning districts to allow construction of a four-story hotel and a one-story freestanding restaurant within the municipality.  This contested property is a seven-acre vacant lot within a zoning district adjacent to an existing Sears store with parking areas for the adjacent Livingston Mall.

The district is also adjacent to a residential district with existing single family homes.  These homes are located also across from the Livingston Mall.  A four-lane highway and berms with mature vegetation screen the Livingston Mall from the homes.  Many of these homes have existed near the Livingston Mall for more than thirty years.  Plaintiffs reside in a home near this zoning district.

Many years ago, the Livingston Planning Board (Board) adopted a Reexamination and Comprehensive Revision of the Master Plan.  The document recommended exploring alternative uses for the property in the zoning district.

The Township’s first proposal met with public backlash because objectors believed the proposed ordinance did not comport with the neighboring residential areas and would increase traffic in the area.  The township then commissioned a traffic study to consider the impact of future development within the district.

Following a traffic study, and considering the public comments related to a proposed ordinance for the property, the township adopted an ordinance to address future development within the district.  The proposed ordinance provided any restaurant within the zone would be a “full-service establishment” rather than a fast-food chain.

The planning board determined the ordinance was consistent with the Master Plan, so the township council unanimously voted in favor of the ordinance, concluding a hotel and restaurant would positively impact the municipality.

Plaintiff then filed its complaint in lieu of prerogative writs against the municipality alleging the ordinance constituted illegal spot zoning, was inconsistent with the 2007 Master Plan, and was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.

At the conclusion of the hearing, after reviewing the testimony and evidence presented, the trial court issued a thorough opinion, and upheld the ordinance even finding the defense expert “more credible, authoritative, and persuasive as to the matter before the court.”

Based on credibility determinations regarding the expert testimony, the judge found plaintiff “failed to establish that the ordinance was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable” to invalidate the ordinance.  The judge agreed with the council’s determination “the development of a hotel and freestanding restaurant was an ‘appropriate use or development of land’ and promotes the general welfare of Livingston.”

The judge also rejected plaintiff’s contention the ordinance constituted illegal spot zoning.

The Appellate Court found the ordinance did not constitute impermissible spot zoning.

Nor did the ordinance violate the uniformity clause of the NJ Land Use Act.  The uniformity clause, N.J.S.A. 40:55D-62(a), “does not prohibit classifications within a district so long as they are reasonable and so long as all similarly situated property receives the same treatment.”  Said the Appellate Court, “We also agree with the judge’s finding the ordinance was not inconsistent with the 2007 Master Plan.  The requirement that an ordinance be ‘substantially consistent’ with the master plan permits some inconsistency, provided it does not substantially or materially undermine or distort the basis provisions and objections of the Master Plan.”

If you are looking for additional details on the topic of zoning or if you require advice about your situation, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing or telephone consultations if you are unable to come to our office.

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold Township, Monmouth County, NJ Zoning Law Attorney

Previous PostNext Post