Appellate Division Upholds Township’s Billboard Approval

In Estee Vineyards, Inc. v. Cranbury Twp. Planning Bd., the Appellate Division upheld a planning board’s approval of a billboard along the New Jersey Turnpike. According to the appeals court, because the billboard was a permitted use under the zoning ordinance, the Cranbury Township Planning Board (Board) couldn’t deny the billboard outright and properly approved the requested design waivers after considering the impact on surrounding properties.

Facts of the Case

Plaintiff Estee Vineyards, Inc., a California grape farming company, owns property in the Industrial Light Impact (I-LI) Zone in Cranbury, New Jersey. Although residential properties are prohibited in the I-LI Zone, there is a farmhouse on the three and a half acre lot, which plaintiff leases to tenants. The residence, therefore, is a nonconforming use in the zone. 

Billboards are a permitted use in the I-LI Zone. Interstate Outdoor Advertising, LP (Interstate) filed an application to erect a two-sided billboard in the Conrail railroad right of way (ROW), which runs parallel to the New Jersey Turnpike. The application did not require any variances, but sought three design waivers because of particular topographic conditions of the ROW. The sign was to be erected sixty feet above grade level and illuminated by three 100-watt LED lights. It did not have a digital component. The sign was 556 feet away from plaintiff’s property line and 762 feet from the farmhouse. 

The Board voted unanimously to approve the application and adopted a memorializing resolution on January 5, 2017. The Board approved the design waivers as reasonable and necessary due to the topography of the land. It also noted that the waivers actually served to decrease the impact of the sign on neighboring properties. 

Thereafter, the “plaintiff filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, seeking to invalidate the Board’s approval of Interstate’s application. Plaintiff alleged the Board had acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and unlawfully in granting the application because it had ‘incomplete and incorrect information’ on the ‘specific location’ of plaintiff’s property, precluding the Board from determining whether the sign had a detrimental visual impact on the property.” 

The trial court affirmed the Board’s decision. In reaching his decision, Judge Michael V. Cresitello, Jr. “noted the Board ‘could not have denied Interstate’s application outright’ because the billboard was a permitted use under the zoning ordinance.” Rather, it “only had the authority to deny the three site plan exceptions requested by Interstate.” 

With respect to the site plan exceptions, Judge Cresitellodetermined the Board’s “professional witnesses gave uncontroverted testimony that the waivers . . . were necessitated by existing land and topographic conditions.” Accordingly, he found “the Board made appropriate factual findings based on the evidence presented at the hearing.” Judge Cresitello also found it was “clear” the Board had addressed the visual impacts of the billboard. 

Appellate Division’s Decision

The Appellate Division found the trial judge’s findings were fully supported by the record, and his legal conclusions were unassailable. Accordingly, it affirmed “substantially for the reasons that Judge Cresitello expressed in his well-reasoned opinion.”

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division highlighted that the planning board was required to, and did, consider the visual impact of the sign on surrounding properties, including the plaintiff’s. “The Board heard uncontroverted expert testimony that the altered design of the billboard would ‘minimize[] any reasonable [visual] impact’ on the nearby nonconforming properties, and the utilization of LED fixtures was intentionally selected to only illuminate the sign faces,” the court wrote. “Without testimony from plaintiff to refute these assertions, it was not arbitrary for the Board to determine that the visual impact would be minimal to plaintiff’s and other nonconforming properties.” 

For more information about Appellate Division’s decision in Estee Vineyards, Inc. v. Cranbury Twp. Planning Bd.or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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