The Township of Ocean, New Jersey downzoned the plaintiffs' residentially-and-commercially-zoned land to "Environmental Conservation." The EC district allows "only very low density residential development or other low intensity uses," with a minimum lot size of 20 acres.
The plaintiffs, who own 34 acres subject the EC zoning, challenged the zoning ordinance, asserting it was "arbitrary, unreasonable, capricious and illegal," and that it resulted in an inverse condemnation because it prohibited all uses.
In Griepenburg v. Township of Ocean, No. A-55-13 (Jan. 22, 2015), the New Jersey Supreme Court seemed to agree that there is little chance the property owners can make any use of their land: "[a]lthough plaintiffs' single-family residence conforms to the ED district's density requirement of one unit per twenty acres, no further development of their property within the EC district is permitted under the new zoning." Slip op. at 13.
The Supreme Court, however, held that the Township had a valid reason to include the property in the EC district, and rejected the owners' claim that their land didn't belong in the zone because it doesn't contain any open waters, endangered species, or other things that would support EC zoning. The court concluded that the property's inclusion was reasonably related to the purposes of EC zoning, because the district was designed to preserve environmentally sensitive areas, and there was some evidence that the plaintiffs' land qualified.
Plaintiffs’ property’s inclusion in the EC district must be measured against the Township’s actual objectives in enacting the Ordinances. The Township planned to create a contiguous tract, or corridor, of environmentally related, sensitive coastal uplands in order to preserve and protect coastal habitat and ecosystems and to provide a buffer for its corresponding intention to promote smart growth in a sustainable, concentrated town center. As the DEP approval noted, the protection of vulnerable coastal uplands is a legitimate environmental-welfare concern. The Township repeatedly emphasized its broad planning objective to protect a sensitive coastal ecosystem through the preservation of large areas of undisturbed, contiguous habitat, which included plaintiffs’ property. The record developed by the Township supported that much of the area surrounding the subject property is undeveloped or undevelopable, and that the land west of the Parkway in the neighboring town is similarly zoned for residential use, one unit per twenty acres. Those facts supported the Township’s assertion, and the trial court’s findings and conclusion, that the property was appropriately zoned to achieve the goal of promoting smart, sustainable growth through concentrated development in the Waretown Town Center, with a robust “green belt” in the outer areas of the Township.Based on the record, which included Slachetka’s testimony about the ecosystem of which plaintiffs’ property was a part, as well as evidence showing that plaintiffs’ property connected and was related to other undeveloped forested properties that constituted habitat for endangered snakes and other wildlife, the trial court acted within its authority when concluding that designating plaintiffs’ property as part of the EC district was not arbitrary or capricious.
Slip op. at 30-31 (footnote omitted). So far, nothing too surprising.
As for the owners' claim the EC zoning deprived them of their ability to develop their land, the court held the claim was premature because the owners had not sought a "variance" from the ordinance, and thus had not exhausted their administrative remedies. "The variance process is particularly well suited to determining whether an otherwise valid ordinance creates a hardship as applied to a particular property." Slip op. at 35. The court rejected the owners' claim that trying to obtain a variance would be futile.
So it looks like the inverse claim that the EC zoning deprived the owners of all beneficial uses of their land will have to wait for another day.