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Commons v. Westwood Zoning Board of Adjustment

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiffs, Commons (Plaintiffs), brought suit to challenge the decision of the Defendant, Westwood Zoning Board of Adjustment (Defendant), to deny variance from minimum frontage requirements for single family residences. The Plaintiffs could not build a home on the undersized lot.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Specific factual findings concerning hardship to applicant and affect on purpose of the ordinance are required to justify decision to deny a variance.

    Facts. A 1947 amendment to the zoning ordinance required that all one-family homes be located on lots with frontage of at least 75 feet. Here, the lot was located in a residential area, which has historically and has continued to have many nonconforming lots with frontages under 75 feet. The Defendant denied an allowance of a variance that would allow Plaintiff to build a home on a lot with only 30 feet of frontage. The Defendant zoning board had found that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate evidence of hardship, even though plaintiff offered evidence showed it was difficult to sell the lot to the adjoining neighbor’s for a reasonable price because it assessed at a low value. The Defendant zoning board had also found that granting the variance would “substantially impair the intent and purpose of the Zone Plan” presumably because of a number of concerns expressed by neighbor’s concerning the plaintiff’s application for a variance.

    Issue. Has the plaintiff experienced an undue hardship because he can not construct a single-family dwelling on this size lot, such that a variance from the zoning ordinance should be allowed to avoid that undue hardship?
    Could the variance be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and without impairing the purpose of the zoning plan?

    Held. The Court stated that a reasonable conclusion might be that the property was subjected to hardship and had effectively been zoned into inutility unless the variance was granted. Indeed, the Court found the evidence before the Board was insufficient to decide whether or not hardship had been established. Thus, the issue was remanded to Board for additional factual consideration.
    Factual findings of Defendant were not specific enough to establish conclusion that variance could not be justly granted, particularly if they had to do with structure, appearance or value of home smaller in size than those in the neighborhood. In particular, there should have been consideration of a plan for the proposed house and whether it would comply with the municipality’s building code.

    Discussion. The Zoning ordinance said that a variance from the ordinance lot size requirements would only be granted if there was undue hardship on the applicant and no impairment of the intent and purpose of the Zoning plan. Without any specific fact findings, the Board simply declared its conclusion that there was not undue hardship and that a variance would impair the intent and purpose of the zoning plan. This was too much like summary quoting of the ordinance to justify the outcome. The Court demanded that the Board include specific finds of fact.


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