NJ Court Rules Res Judicata Did Not Bar Development Application

In Glenn v. City of Cape May Planning Board, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court held that a land use application was not barred by res judicata because the City of Cape May Planning Board never reached the full merits of earlier applications related to the site.  In addition, the Board’s decision to consider shared parking in one intervening application was a change in conditions that warranted consideration of the current application and variance.

NJ Court Rules Res Judicata Did Not Bar Development Application

Facts of the Case

Defendant Adis, Inc. operates a motel and restaurant.  The property consists of 141 units and 146-seat restaurant, which is located in a separate building on the same lot. Defendant submitted several applications over time to redevelop part of its property and add new motel rooms.  Most of the applications required parking variances.  The City of Cape May Planning Board (Planning Board) denied the variance in some cases while other circumstances either prevented a decision on the merits, or the project did not proceed.

In a 2015 application, the Defendant sought to demolish the existing restaurant and to construct a new 146-seat restaurant with twenty-one motel units above. Adis determined that under the terms of the Ordinance, the project would require 227 parking spaces. Because the existing property only contained 173 spaces, Adis proposed to create nine additional spaces and to seek a variance, contending that 182 spaces total would be sufficient under a shared parking arrangement.

Adis had raised the concept of “shared parking,” which is “the use of parking spaces to serve two or more individual land uses without conflict or encroachment,” in a 2010 application that was ultimately rejected. In 2015, the Board approved the application. The plaintiffs filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ, arguing the Board’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable because Adis had not proved the requisite positive and negative criteria required for a variance. They further maintained that the doctrine of res judicata barred Adis’s application.

The trial court disagreed and upheld the board’s decision.

The Doctrine of Res Judicata

The goal of res judicata is to prevent the same claims involving the same parties from repeatedly being filed and brought before a court. While more commonly raised in litigation, the doctrine also applies to zoning applications.

As the New Jersey Supreme Court explained in Ten Stary Dom P’ship v. Mauro, 216 N.J. 16 (2013):

If an applicant files an application similar or substantially similar to a prior application, the application involves the same parties or parties in privity with them, there are no substantial changes in the current application or conditions affecting the property from the prior application, there was a prior adjudication on the merits of the application, and both applications seek the same relief, the later application may be barred. It is for the Board to make that determination in the first instance.

Even where an application is “closely similar” to a prior application, if the applicant demonstrates changed circumstances, “it is within the discretion of the board whether to reject the application on the ground of res judicata, and the exercise of that discretion may not be overturned on appeal in the absence of a showing of unreasonableness.” Mazza v. Bd. of Adjustment, 83 N.J. Super. 494, 496 (1964).

Appellate Division’s Decision

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision. After concluding that the Board’s decision to grant the variance was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable because it was supported by substantial evidence in the record satisfying the statutory criteria, the appeals court turned to the res judicata argument.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Board should have barred Adis’s 2015 application on res judicata grounds because it was substantially similar to Adis’s 2009 application and sought greater relief than its fall 2010 application. The Appellate Division found that the Board did not reach the full merits of either application and thus those decisions did not bind the 2015 application. It also highlighted that the Board’s engineer concluded that the applications were not substantially similar. Finally, it determined that the Board’s decision to consider shared parking in 2013 constituted a sufficient change in conditions to warrant consideration of the current application and variance.

For more information about the court’s decision in Glenn v. City of Cape May Planning Board or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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