NJ Appeals Court Sides With Middletown in White Castle Zoning Dispute

The Appellate Division recently addressed when New Jersey planning boards must grant exceptions from the requirements for site plan approval under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-51(b). In White Castle System Inc. v. Planning Board of the Township of Middletown, the appeals court held that the Planning Board of the Township of Middletown (the Board) properly denied an application for site plan approval that failed to comply with the Township’s site design ordinance, which established a “fifty-foot buffer” requirement.

The Facts of the Case

The dispute arises from the Board’s denial of plaintiff White Castle System, Inc.’s (White Castle) application for site plan approval for a proposed 1,952 square foot fast-food restaurant located in the Township’s B-3 Business Zone. As detailed in court documents, although White Castle’s site plan conformed to the conditional use standards of the B-3 Business Zone, the Board rejected its application because the proposed restaurant did not comply with a “fifty-foot buffer” requirement set forth in the Township’s site design ordinance. This buffer is intended to separate the proposed restaurant’s parking lot from the adjacent non-conforming residential uses.

In response to the denial, White Castle filed an action lieu of prerogative writ challenging the Board’s rejection of its site plan application. The trial court found that White Castle established sufficient grounds to entitle it to an exception of the site design standard under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-51(b). The statute provides:

The planning board when acting upon applications for preliminary site plan approval shall have the power to grant such exceptions from the requirements for site plan approval as may be reasonable and within the general purpose and intent of the provisions for the site plan review and approval of an ordinance adopted pursuant to this article, if the literal enforcement of one or more provisions of the ordinance is impracticable or will exact undue hardship because of peculiar conditions pertaining to the land in question.

In this case, the trial court specifically found that the plaintiff established it was “impracticable” to comply with the ordinance’s fifty-foot buffer requirement within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 40:55D-51(b) because “it is clear that this was the best the Applicant could do to conform to every requirement except for the buffer requirement.” Accordingly, the court concluded the Board’s decision to deny plaintiff’s application was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. The Board appealed, arguing that the trial court applied an incorrect standard of review by substituting its judgment for the Board’s judgment thereby usurping the Board’s statutory role under the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL).

The Court’s Decision

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision. It held that plaintiff’s decision to “steadfastly decline to meet the ordinance’s buffer requirements” was not “impractical” from a zoning perspective. Rather, it found that White Castle’s unwillingness to reconfigure the parking lot to accommodate the fifty-foot buffer requirement was “expressly based on avoiding inconveniencing its future patrons by having to walk a longer distance to enter the restaurant.” Accordingly, it found that the fast-food chain’s concerns were based on practical economic considerations.

Conversely, the appeals court found that the fifty-foot buffer is a practical means of addressing the concerns raised by the people who reside adjacent to plaintiff’s site. As further explained in its opinion, “The fifty-foot buffer would mitigate the noise and other quality of life disruptions associated with residing near a fast-food restaurant designed to operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week” and, therefore, “was directly related to one of the expressed purposes identified by the Legislature in the Municipal Land Use Law: ‘To promote a desirable visual environment through creative development techniques and good civic design and arrangement.’” Accordingly, the appeals court ruled that the board’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious.

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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