NJ Supreme Court Sides With Township Over Municipal Land Use Authority

In Griepenburg v. Township of Ocean, the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed the power of municipalities to zone property consistent with their Master Plan and Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) goals. In addition to finding the ordinances at issue were not were not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, the court also held that plaintiffs must exhaust their administrative remedies before being able to attack municipal land use ordinances in court. This ruling represents a dramatic change in the law. It now may preclude challenges brought for the sole purpose of challenging the validity of a land use ordinance.

The Facts of the Case

Thomas and Carol Griepenburg filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of a series of ordinances enacted by the Township of Ocean (the Township). The ordinances, which were enacted in accordance with smart growth principles, rezoned the plaintiffs’ property from residential and commercial use to an Environmental Conservation district (EC district), thereby restricting future development of their property. The property in question did not contain any environmentally sensitive attributes or wildlife, but bordered undeveloped woodlands.

In their suit, the Griepenburgs alleged that the ordinances were arbitrary, unreasonable, capricious, and illegal and that the rezoning constituted inverse condemnation. The trial court applied the criteria for assessing a zoning ordinance’s validity established in Riggs v. Township of Long Beach, 109 N.J. 601, 611-12 (1988), and determined that the ordinances were a valid exercise of municipal zoning power and were not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the property lacked specific environmental constraints.

The Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the ordinances represented a legitimate exercise of the municipality’s power to zone property consistent with its MLUL goals. Moreover, it held that the plaintiffs failed to overcome the ordinances’ presumption of validity. As explained in the opinion:

The inclusion of plaintiffs’ property in the EC district rationally relates to the municipality’s comprehensive smart growth development plan, which concentrated development in a town center surrounded by a green-zone buffer. That plan had the additional benefit of protecting a sensitive coastal ecosystem through the preservation of undisturbed, contiguous, forested uplands, of which plaintiffs’ property is an integral and connected part.

The New Jersey Supreme Court further held that a landowner who wishes to challenge the validity of an ordinance as applied should exhaust administrative remedies before initiating an action at law unless the interests of justice requires otherwise. In so ruling, the Court rejected the argument that its prior decision in the Court’s decision in Pheasant Bridge Corp. v. Township of Warren, 169 N.J. 282 (2001) should be read to suggest that a landowner challenging an ordinance as applied to his or her property is excused from first exhausting administrative remedies. In this case, the court held that the plaintiffs should have sought a variance before pursuing either an as-applied challenge or an inverse condemnation claim because none of the exceptions to the exhaustion doctrine apply. This ruling may result in numerous cases being challenged on this basis by municipalities. It will also impact the property rights of landowners who believe that their ability to develop their property has been taken away from them in an unjust and possibly unconstitutional manner.

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