Planning board and zoning board hearings on development applications, at times, stir powerful emotions from residents who believe approval would negatively impact them. Their fear of a change to the quality of life causes them to direct and project their anger towards those they feel are responsible.
On Nov. 16, I, along with other planning board members, sat through three hours of site plan application by Amazon for a last-mile facility on Princess Road, and rendered a decision that was supported by the facts and the law.
I want to be clear: I am not employed by Amazon; I am not the owner of the commercial property on Princess Road; I did not have anything to do with coming up with the idea of developing the commercial lot into a warehouse; I didn’t have anything to do with establishing the zoning for Princess Road to permit warehouses and other industrial buildings to be situated on it (that happened decades ago); I didn’t have anything to do with the approval and construction of The Gatherings which was built well after Princess Road was zoned for commercial development. I, along with the other board members, are “involved” with the application because of our membership on the planning board and for no other reason.
Despite the preceding paragraphs, this article is not about any particular application before the planning board or the zoning board, but rather to discuss how applications for developments come to be and the role and the responsibilities of the planning/zoning boards have in deciding to approve or deny them. Many books about this subject contain hundreds of pages referencing statutes and cases that you can read to be better informed. Still, I offer the following insights knowing that your daily lives are too busy to allow you the luxury of actually reading a textbook on zoning/planning laws. The goal is to provide you some context about development applications and how and why the boards make decisions.
First, you should know that almost all of the development applications heard by the boards are initiated by private citizens or private businesses, not your governing body or township officials. Second, every single application that complies with the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law and the Township Land Use Ordinance requirements must be accepted, processed, reviewed by township professionals and ultimately decided by either the planning or zoning boards after a full and fair hearing.
When I say every single application, I mean it. For example, suppose the Lawrence Shopping Center wants to make an application for developing an amusement park that will cover every inch of the property, or a local church wants to build a 50,000-seat stadium next to Lawrence Road. In these cases, despite their absurdity, the application must be accepted and a hearing ultimately scheduled so the board members can decide to either approve or deny. Third, each board member must consider the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law, the Lawrence Township Land Use Ordinance, the testimony of the fact witnesses, the testimony of expert witnesses and the comments offered during public participation by residents, property owners or business owners before rendering their decision. Finally, the mere fact that an application becomes a hearing before a board in no way, shape or form, should cause you to believe that “the township” endorses it or wants it approved and made a reality. That would be a false assumption.
(Also note, that neither the LSC nor a local church has any plans like the hypotheticals above.)
The Lawrence Township Planning Board currently has 11 voting members—eight residents of the community appointed by the governing body, the mayor, a council member and the municipal manager. The board’s duties include supervision over the drafting of the master plan for the township (reviewed every six years), reviewing proposed ordinances to make sure they comply with the master plan and reviewing and deciding every application for a proposed subdivision, development or building project (site plan) to ensure compliance with our land ordinance. The board has the power to grant specific variances (a request to deviate from a current zoning requirement) that have to do with the shape and size of buildings and plots of land.
The Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment (also known as the zoning board) has nine voting members appointed by the governing body. The board’s sole authority is to review development and building applications which require a use variance. In addition to the bulk size and shape requirements, each parcel of land is assigned a particular use or set of uses which are permitted under the master plan and zoning ordinance. Any different use needs a variance. For example, building a commercial property in an area zoned only for residential use would go to the zoning board for review and decision.
The residents that serve on these boards are volunteers. They donate their time reviewing plans and attending hearings (often late into the evening) and, for the most part, do not receive much, if any, appreciation from their fellow residents. Though it is an important job, it is thankless. But knowing the members as I do, they don’t do the work to receive appreciation; they do it out of their sense of community volunteerism and believing themselves capable of the critical task.
Though many believe that these boards can vote to deny applications because they are unpopular with a group of vocal residents who attend the hearings in opposition, a denial of the application that bows to peer pressure may not end the application process. New Jersey law sets forth specific guidelines as to when applications should and should not be granted.
Notably, the members of these boards take an oath that swears them to ”faithfully, impartially and justly perform all the duties” of the board.
I witnessed first-hand board members honor this oath, understanding full well that their decision to grant or deny an application will disappoint someone or many. Should a board vote “no” without a basis in law or fact on an application, the applicant can (and often does) appeal the decision to the Superior Court of New Jersey. Significantly, the judge who is assigned to hear the appeal is not influenced by public opinion, and his/her job is strictly to apply the law. The judge will consider the application’s facts and apply the law to determine whether the Board’s decision should be overturned, upheld, or if the board should look at the application again. This provides a check, ensuring that the law is enforced. Therefore, applicants that follow the law can count on their application being granted by appealing to the court.
For the curious, do a Google search for the following New Jersey cases: “The Pizzo-Mantin Case,” “Toll Brothers v. West Windsor Case” or “W.L. Goodfellows and Co. v. Washington Township Planning Board,” and you will get a better sense that a board’s denial is meaningless if the law or the facts don’t support it.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of the process and a better appreciation for the responsibilities residents undertake when they volunteer their time to serve on these boards.