An Ocean County judge overturned an approval by the Lakewood Township Zoning Board which allowed four houses in an area not intended to accommodate more than one, saying that the board was wrong by not giving neighbors adequate time to present professional testimony.
The case involved a proposed development in the area of Vine Street and Washington Avenue, in which a developer received a density variance to construct 4 homes in an R-40 zone on lots that are 63% smaller than required – meaning that instead of allotting nearly an acre for each house, only about 15,000 square feet would be used. Neighbors raised objections, including saying that building more homes than the area was zoned for would impact the traffic patterns in the already traffic-plagued neighborhood, and they hired an attorney to represent them before the Zoning Board.
After being retained for the case, the neighbor’s attorney requested that the hearing on the variance be carried to a future meeting, so that he would have time to hire professionals to testify before the board about the code’s interpretation and the impact of the extra houses. The board refused and continued on with the application on the agenda, and they voted to approve it that night, November 9, 2020.
In a ruling last week, Ocean County Judge Marlene Lynch Ford ruled that the Zoning Board violated the neighbors’ rights by refusing to carry the application. According to the law, neighbors are allowed to present professional testimony, and failing to give them the time to prepare to do this is grounds to void the approval.
“The interest of these objectors to be able to set forth a meaningful argument before the Board was severely hampered by the refusal of the Board to reschedule this after a brief adjournment,” Judge Ford said. “And the Courts have found in a number of cases that were cited by the plaintiff that a failure to grant a reasonable request for an adjournment so that counsel can be obtained, witnesses can be produced is – is arbitrary, and capricious, and unreasonable behavior that would justify remanding this matter back before the Board… The summary judgment on that basis will be granted. The matter will be remanded to the Board for any further proceedings…”
The judge was unconvinced by some of the other reasons cited for reversing the approval, one being that the public notice was inadequate because it was sent during a Jewish holiday, which gave neighbors less time to respond. The judge said that as long as the notice complied with the Municipal Land Use law, it was sufficient and could not be challenged. But failing to allow objectors to bring professionals was justification for reversal.
Many heralded this decision as a glimmer of hope for local residents, who often watch as their quiet neighborhoods are transformed into overcrowded metropolises without being able to take any meaningful action.
“Deep-pocketed developers often get whatever approvals they need, while neighbors are often too poor or too busy to hire attorneys to defend their neighborhoods and their quality of life,” a neighbor involved in the lawsuit told Matzav.com. “This decision is a big win for every Lakewood resident, as it reaffirms that the Land Use Boards in Lakewood are legally mandated to be considerate towards the best interests of everyone in mind, not just a select few.”