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The Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently upheld a board decision to approve the settlement of an application for a conditional use variance and final site plan approval to install a billboard on property along a highway.
In Village of Ridgefield Park v. Outfront Media, LLC and Planning/Zoning Board of the Borough of Bogota, No. A-1135-20 (App. Div. Oct. 7, 2022), the village of Ridgefield Park in Bergen County, New Jersey challenged a decision by the Bogota Joint Zoning and Planning Board (“Board”) to approve an amended application by Outfront Media to install a free-standing, static billboard featuring a non-digital advertisement on an empty grass area near Interstate 80. The Appellate Division affirmed the Law Division’s order to approve the billboard, finding that the advertising company met its burden of proof to satisfy a section (d)(3) conditional use variance, as laid out in Coventry Square, Inc. v. Westwood Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 138 N.J. 285, 300-01 (1994).
Outfront Media initially submitted an application for a Billboard that was ultimately denied by the joint Board, finding that the application required four variances. Outfront filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ, challenging the Board’s decision. The Appellate Division reversed the Board’s decision and vacated the matter back to the Board, finding that the Board had failed to adequately explain its conclusions; specifically, that the Board’s decision was “conclusory in nature and untied to any of its factual findings.” On remand, the Board approved a settlement agreement with Outfront based on a revised application, which changed various aspects of the billboard plan.
Ridgefield Park opposed the settlement and filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ, arguing that the Board improperly “changed” the interpretation of a Zoning ordinance it applied to the first Outfront application, citing res judicata and collateral estoppel. The lower court found that the Board was not bound by its prior interpretation of the zoning ordinance or fact findings.
The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s well-reasoned opinion, adding additional comments relating to the concepts of res judicata and collateral estoppel. “The application of res judicata doctrine requires substantially similar or identical causes of action and issues, parties, and relief sought.” Culver v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 115 N.J. 451, 460 (1989). “As a general principle, [c]ollateral estoppel is that branch of . . . res judicata which bars relitigation of any issue which was actually determined in a prior action . . . .” In re Liquidation of Integrity Ins. Co., 214 N.J. 51, 66 (2013) (quoting Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs. v. R.D., 207 N.J. 88, 114 (2011)).
Since the Board’s first resolution was vacated by the Appellate Division and remanded for the Board to reopen the hearing and consider additional evidence, the Board was not bound by its prior interpretation. Thus, the settlement agreement with Outfront was upheld.
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