Fight over proposed Haddonfield drug rehab center puts zoning laws front and center

 Haddonfield is where the world's first nearly-complete skeleton of a dinosaur was found in 1858. (Shutterstock)

Haddonfield is where the world's first nearly-complete skeleton of a dinosaur was found in 1858. (Shutterstock)

Recovery Centers of America, the company attempting to build a drug treatment center in Haddonfield, says it’s listening to the concerns of local residents who object to the center being constructed near a high school, according to clinical director Deni Carise.
 
That being said, they do intend to build the center, barring some unforeseen legal obstacle.
“There are understandable concerns and there are discussions to be had, and nothing’s 100 percent in terms of zoning,” Carise said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
 
It’s one more retelling of a story that’s played out countless times in New Jersey municipalities. A developer trying to build something. Local residents trying to stop it.
 
Legal experts who typically represent residents or developers agree that such disputes often have a common element. Local opponents will expect that members of their town or city government can simply vote against a project, and it will go away. Then they’re surprised to find out that it doesn’t work that way.
 
Larry Forshner, chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Land Use Section, said there’s usually little that opponents — whether they’re members of the public, or of a municipal government — can do against a proposed development project that conforms with the zoning for its designated site. “If you have a project that meets all the requirements, the applicant is entitled to approval as a matter of law,” he said.
 
It’s more complicated with the proposed drug treatment center in Haddonfield, which would require a zoning variance to operate. Even in such cases, though, the municipality legally cannot deny the variance without demonstrating that failing to do so would represent a substantial detriment to the public good, Forshner said.
 
Forshner, who has represented the builders in many legal challenges to construction projects, said state law doesn’t necessarily favor them. In fact, New Jersey has some of the strictest land-use laws in the country, and municipalities are supposed to review them every 10 years.
State law also recognizes that a system allowing selective enforcement of zoning laws could invite abuse, Forshner said. For example, municipal officials who own businesses could theoretically use “spot zoning” to keep out competitors. “What courts have said is it’s not about the individual developer,” Forshner said. “It’s about the proposal.”
 
Bill Potter, a Princeton-based lawyer, has represented a number of citizen groups opposing construction projects for environmental reasons. In an interview, he emphasized that he doesn’t object to the Haddonfield drug rehab center project. But he agreed that it’s generally difficult to mount a legal fight without demonstrating that a project violates zoning laws.
 
Those land-use laws can work against developers too, Potter said, so the best bet for town residents opposed to a project is to show there is such a violation.
 
And if there isn’t one?
 
Potter said the state Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a set of requirements for stormwater runoff on construction projects, which a lot of developers overlook. He’d recommend that anyone trying to stop a building project pursue that avenue.
 
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, has also sided with citizen groups on many environmental campaigns against proposed building projects. He agrees that it’s an uphill battle. Many times, the developer has far more resources at its disposal than the citizens opposing it, or even the town where it’s trying to build.
 
Opponents of a building project can try rallying enough people that a company considers going through with the project to be bad for its public image. The catch is that the company has to be visible and public enough for that to be a factor, which isn’t always the case.
 
Which doesn’t mean that citizens’ groups should always assume theirs is a lost cause, O’Malley said. “A lot of times, these are David-and-Goliath fights,” he said. “But sometimes David can win, and sometimes David is right.”

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