Court Strikes Down NJ Zoning Law Governing Alzheimer’s Residences

In Blake Gardens, LLC v. State of New JerseyU.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan of the District of New Jersey struck down a New Jersey law that reclassified Alzheimer’s residences as health care facilities and placed them under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health (DOH). The law, New Jersey P.L. 2015 c. 125, also changed the zoning of an Alzheimer’s residence from conditional approval in a single-family residential zone to requiring a use variance. According to the court, the law runs afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Facts of Blake Gardens, LLC v. State of New Jersey

In 2015, the New Jersey Legislature passed P.L. 2015 c. 125(the “2015 Act”), which regulated the development of Alzheimer’s residences, and reclassified such residences as health care facilities pursuant to the Health Facility Planning Act. The 2015 Act removed these facilities from the definition of Alzheimer’s residences, and placed them under the purview of the DOH. As highlighted by the court, the amendment is significant because it changes the zoning of a residence for a person with Alzheimer’s disease from conditional approval in a single-family residence zone to one where a use variance is required.

Plaintiff Blake Gardens (Blake Gardens) is a limited liability company that develops and builds community residences for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia throughout the State.  In or around early 2017, Blake Gardens sought to construct a new Alzheimer’s residence for people with Alzheimer’s disease in a single-family residential zoning district on Hunt Road in the Township of Freehold. To that end, Blake Gardens applied for a building permit from the Township as a home for individuals with head injuries, as the term is defined under the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). 

Freehold’s Director of Zoning and Housing Enforcement, Pasquale Popolizio, requested an overview of the residence from Eric Boe, the President of Blake Gardens. In a letter dated March 8, 2017, Boepresented the requested overview to Popolizio with a picture of the proposed residence and the description of the home. Boe stated that the persons to live in the residence “will all have headinjuriesas that term is defined under New Jersey law and will live together as a family.” 

In a letter dated March 21, 2017, Popolizio rejected Boe’s application based on the change in the MLUL which excluded persons with Alzheimer’s disease from the definition of persons with a head injury. The letter also informed Plaintiff that they could appeal the decision to the Freehold Township Planning Board within 20 days after receipt of the letter. Instead of appealing, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against the State to challenge the 2015 law as a violation of the FHA. According to the Plaintiff, the 2015 Act facially violated the FHA because it required approval of a use variance from the local zoning board for construction of an Alzheimer’s residence when the prior statutory law permitted such construction without local zoning board approval.

Court’s Decision in Blake Gardens, LLC v. State of New Jersey

The federal district court granted Blake Gardens’ motion for summary judgment, holding that the 2015 Act violated the FHA. “[T]he State has a legitimate governmental interest in protecting its vulnerable citizens with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Nevertheless, the State may not protect these individuals in a way that discriminates against them without justification,” Judge Sheridan wrote. “The State has not provided any justification for the 2015 Act’s facial discrimination against individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. For these reasons, the State’s motion for summary judgment is denied, and Plaintiff’s motion is granted.”

In reaching his decision, Judge Sheridan emphasized that the FHA prohibits housing discrimination due to a person’s disability or handicap and invalidates any state law that “purports to require or permit any action that would be a discriminatory housing practice.” He went on to conclude that the Plaintiff had shown intentional disparate treatment of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia regarding housing. 

“The 2015 Act is clear that it does not allow community residences for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease dementia, where it allows similar homes for individuals with head injuries, developmental disabilities, terminal illnesses, and non-disabled persons,” Judge Sheridan wrote. “Here, the 2015 Act treats individuals with Alzheimer’s disease dementia disparately.”

The court next turned to whether the State could show that it had a legitimate government interest in enacting the 2015 Act. The court ultimately concluded that the State failed to satisfy its burden. As Judge Sheridan explained:

[W]hile the State highlights the need for more individual care and medical attention for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the propensity for Alzheimer’s or dementia patients to wander… or become potentially violent, as well as the need for emergency services access to each dementia care home, the State does not explain how each these needs cannot be met within a community home in a residential zone, with oversight by the DOH. Moreover, the State argues that this is the least restrictive measure, as less restrictive measures were attempted in the past, and were unsuccessful…But the State does not explain how these measures were unsuccessful. Accordingly, the State has not shown that there is no alternative course action that could be adopted to serve its interest with a less discriminatory impact.

Key Takeaway for New Jersey Municipalities 

As the court’s decision in Blake Gardens, LLC v. State of New Jersey makes clear, state regulations and local zoning ordinances that treat certain groups differently may be construed as a discriminatory housing practice under the FHA. To pass muster, entities must be able to clearly show a legitimate government interest.

For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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