20-Acre Zoning - Smart Growth or Something Else?

On Feb. 4, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that involves a challenge by property owners to a municipal zoning ordinance that established 20-acre minimum lot sizes for residential development. Griepenburg v. Township of Ocean, 2013 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2154 (App. Div. Aug. 29, 2013), certif. granted, ___ N.J. ___ (2014). According to Ocean Township (the Township), the downzoning was justified based on smart growth and environmental protection grounds. Understandably, the landowners disagreed. They contended that the ordinance was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable and sought to idle their property into inutility. The trial court heard the parties’ competing planning experts and sided with the Township. But the Appellate Division was unimpressed with the smart growth and environmental protection rationales. The appeals court also noted that unlike some other large lot ordinances that had been sustained, the Township’s enactment did not provide for a clustering option that would have enabled the affected landowners to realize some economic use of the property. These issues were addressed in two well-reasoned appellate decisions in 2005, both of which were authored by Judge Stephen Skillman. In one of those cases, a 10-acre minimum lot size ordinance adopted by an agricultural municipality to prevent sprawl and preserve its rural character was upheld. Farm Bureau v. Township of East Amwell, 380 N.J. Super 325 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 185 N.J. 596 (2005). But in the other case, six-acre zoning enacted by a densely populated suburban town which did not serve the stated purposes of recognizing environmental constraints, retaining farmland and conserving open space was rejected. Bailes v. Township of East Brunswick, 380 N.J. Super. 336 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 185 N.J. 596 (2005). For additional discussion of those rulings, see L. Goldshore and M. Wolf, A Tale of Two Townships, 182 N.J.L.J. 253 (Oct. 24, 2005). The Griepenburg case provides the state Supreme Court with the opportunity to provide guidance concerning these issues which are of substantial interest to land use and environmental lawyers, as well as to landowners and the development community. But due to the Court’s docket that guidance is unlikely to be forthcoming for at least a year. An article providing a more detailed discussion of Griepenburg will be published in the Mar.17th issue of the New Jersey Law Journal.

More by | Lewis Goldshore Lewis Goldshore , Law.com Contributor
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