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Why we can’t calm down. Reason #1

Calm down, the public was told. This is just the Master Plan the public was told. It will require zoning ordinances by the governing body before anything changes, and that could take years. Well, yes, but.

The New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) requires that each municipality create and update a Master Plan on a regular basis. Under the MLUL, the exclusive jurisdiction for the preparation, adoption, or amendment rests with the Planning Board. (The governing body does NOT vote on the Master Plan.) The purpose of the Master Plan is to “guide the use of lands within the municipality in a manner which protects the public health and safety and promotes the general welfare.”

Fast forward to the zoning – and this is the point where there seems to be confusion about the relationship between the Master Plan and zoning ordinances.

Prior to the 1975 enactment of the state Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), New Jersey did not require consistency between the Master Plan and a municipal zoning ordinance. Now, however, the MLUL requires any ordinance or amendment to be either “substantially consistent with the land use plan element and housing plan element of the Master Plan or designed to effectuate such plan elements... “ This is where the “this is just the plan, not the zoning” argument falls short.

One elected official explained, “We will craft zoning, and if there isn’t any support, then we do something else.” Well, not quite. The MLUL has something to say about that, too. As members of the Planning Board know, they have the responsibility to determine and ensure that all zoning ordinances are consistent with the Master Plan. They are given 35 days after referral to conduct the analysis. The governing body can review the report of the Planning Board and may disapprove or change the recommendation by a vote of the majority of the authorized membership and record in its minutes the reason for not following the recommendation.

OK, so the governing body can disregard the Master Plan by majority vote.

However, this narrow exception makes clear that the governing body and its members are accountable for legislatively-created inconsistencies between the zoning ordinance and the Master Plan and they must set forth the reasons for doing so in a resolution that is recorded in the minutes, which becomes a legal record.

So who will be in line to hold the governing body accountable for not following the Master Plan? Developers will. They have the motive (profit), the means (funding) and the track record of doing so. And the governing body will be required to defend their decision….with taxpayers’ money. Ultimately, the court will determine whether the zoning or proposed change in zoning is substantially consistent with the Master Plan.

Even if there were a competitive election for Council seats next year in which two current members are replaced, we still have the same Master Plan. This document has such far-reaching implications that it is difficult to understand the attitude of those telling the public to “calm down. This is just the plan.” We will be legally bound to this plan for the foreseeable future – which is why we can’t calm down.

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