Earlier this month, the New Jersey Appellate Division decided and approved for publication Cortesini v. Hamilton Township Planning Board, a case that addressed the issue of whether a developer must apply for a variance in connection with a pre-existing non-conforming condition created by a prior/non-appealable development approval. The Court’s answer was a resounding “no” based on the facts presented.

In Cortesini, the applicant, Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust, applied to the Hamilton Township Planning Board in 2009 for amended site plan approval along with associated bulk variances to renovate an existing Wal-Mart Store. The proposed development contemplated a 3.6% increase in area to the current 156,963 sq. ft. store and the addition of 46 parking spaces. There was a pre-existing non-conforming condition on the property.

In 2001, the initial developer of the shopping center had obtained subdivision approval for the development of the shopping center containing the Wal-Mart store. A year later, Wal-Mart successfully secured a site plan approval that authorized the construction of the Wal-Mart as currently configured. However, the initial approvals failed to identify the need for a parking area setback variance that was clearly required pursuant to the Township’s zoning ordinance.

Wal-Mart’s 2009 development application for the renovation of the existing store was approved by the Planning Board. Thereafter, an objecting third-party appealed the Planning Board’s decision to the Superior Court claiming that the approval was invalid because the applicant did not apply for, and the Planning Board did not grant, a bulk variance authorizing the pre-existing parking area setback non-conformity that would remain in existence at the site. The Superior Court upheld the Planning Board’s decision.

Judge Skillman’s opinion in Cortesini leaves no doubt that a subdivision or site plan approval may be challenged if an applicant fails to obtain a necessary variance. However, as the Court points out, the initial approvals that failed to properly identify and grant the parking area setback variance were not challenged on this issue within the 45-day period following publication of notice of the decision under New Jersey Court Rule 4:69-6.

The third-party objector attempted to circumvent the 45-day appeal period that had long ago lapsed on the 2001 and 2002 approvals by arguing that since Wal-Mart applied for amended site plan approval in 2009 the issue was re-opened. In support of such argument, the objector noted that Wal-Mart was required to obtain a variance authorizing the continuation of the non-conformity of its existing parking lot based on the parking area setback requirement.

The Court’s ultimate rejection of the objector’s argument is predicated on several key facts:

  •  The location of the 46 new parking spaces proposed by Wal-Mart’s 2009 site plan application will not violate the parking area setback requirement;
  • The existing parking spaces that fail to conform with the parking area setback requirement are all located a substantial distance from the parts of the store where the renovations authorized by the amended site plan approval will be constructed;
  • In 2001, the Planning Board noted in its resolution of approval that the layout of the parking area was “consistent with good site design and layout, proper planning, and efficient land use utilization”; and
  • The Planning Board’s resolution of approval in 2009 in connection with the development application supported the findings in the 2001 resolution of approval by stating that the existing parking area, including the nonconformity with the setback requirement is “an existing condition that is functioning well and will not have any detrimental impact to the zone plan.”

Based on these facts, the Court made the following conclusions of law:

  • There is no basis for arguing that a variance is required because the improvements proposed are not within the vicinity of the parking area setback violation and therefore the existing non-conformity will not be enhanced or affected by the 2009 development application;
  • The findings in the Planning Board’s 2001 and 2009 resolutions of approval lead the Court to infer that had the applicant applied for a variance for violating the parking area setback requirement, the Planning Board would have granted the variance; and
  • The objector’s claim that a variance is required authorizing the continuation of the non-conformity of the existing parking lot with the parking area setback requirement constitutes a collateral attack on the 2001 and 2009 development approvals.

The outcome of the Cortesini case provides some clarity to developers and land use attorneys on the grey area of how to deal with pre-existing non-conformities and variance conditions that should have been addressed by prior land use applications.

In this land use attorney’s view, the case stands for the proposition that, so long as the proposed development does not impact the pre-existing condition, the applicant need not apply and obtain a variance for its continuation. However, it would be prudent to ensure that the record at the land use board level clearly covers this point through expert witness testimony. Doing so will allow a court reviewing the record de novo to have factual evidence to support a determination that a variance was not required in connection with the new application.

What should a developer take away from this case? – The importance of zoning due diligence. Zoning due diligence and the review of prior land use approvals will most likely uncover the existence of a pre-existing non-conforming condition. Such knowledge will facilitate not only the presentation of a new land use application, but can be significant in negotiating the value of the subject property because a pre-existing non-conformity can have a negative impact on future development.

Jason R. Tuvel is an Associate in the Gibbons Real Property and Environmental Department.