NJ Appeals Court Invalidates Environmental Rezoning Ordinance

Scarinci HollenbeckIn Griepenburg v. Township of Ocean, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled that environmental rezoning ordinances passed by the Township of Ocean were invalid as applied to the plaintiffs’ property because the downzoning was not reasonably required to serve the stated purposes of the ordinances.

The Facts of the Case

Plaintiffs Thomas and Carol Griepenburg own approximately 31 acres of land in the Township of Ocean, which was previously zoned as residential (R-2) and highway commercial (C-3).  A single-family house occupies the property, which is primarily surrounded by other residential lots.

In 2006, Ocean passed an ordinance establishing an EC Environmental Conservation District (EC Zone). The ordinance stated: “It is the intent of this area to act as the low density environs of the center. Given the environmentally sensitive characteristics for the area, only very low intensity uses are allowed. Protection of the area is the principle objective of the EC district.”

The Griepenburgs’ property was included within the new district. Because the EC Zone only permits one unit per twenty acres, the plaintiffs are unable to further develop their land. They filed suit challenging the validity of the ordinance and alleging reverse condemnation of their property.

The Court’s Decision

The appeals panel ultimately concluded that Ocean failed to demonstrate that the limitation of development to one unit per twenty acres is required to serve the stated purposes of the zoning ordinances, namely to protect the “environmentally sensitive characteristics of the area.” In light of the nearby residential development and the absence of any significant environmental constraints upon development, the court found the downzoning of the plaintiffs’ property was arbitrary and capricious.

“While the rezoning of the subject property for lower density development will result in preservation of a greater amount of open space, Ocean may not compel private property to be devoted to preservation for open space by restrictive zoning that is not justified by environmental constraints or other legitimate reasons. … Instead, Ocean must acquire any properties that it deems necessary for open space preservation by payment of fair market value to the owners,” the panel explained.

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

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