Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel

336 A.2d 713 (N.J. 1975)

Quick Summary

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The Southern Burlington County NAACP (plaintiff) contested Mount Laurel’s (defendant) zoning laws, which favored industrial developments and expensive homes, excluding low and moderate income families from affordable housing options.

The dispute centered on whether these regulations violated substantive rights by economically discriminating against certain populations.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that the zoning laws were exclusionary and mandated corrective actions to facilitate access to affordable housing for impacted income groups.

Facts of the Case

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The Southern Burlington County NAACP (plaintiff) challenged the zoning regulations of Mount Laurel (defendant), alleging that these regulations unlawfully excluded low and moderate income families from residing in the town. Mount Laurel’s zoning laws designated a significant portion of land for industrial use, with a small fraction utilized for that purpose while the rest remained undeveloped.

Additionally, the residential zones were restricted in a manner that predominantly accommodated higher-income families, effectively barring access to affordable housing for those with lower incomes. The plaintiffs argued that this exclusionary practice was a result of Mount Laurel’s tax structure, which relied heavily on property taxes from industrial buildings and expensive homes to fund municipal services, particularly education.

Mount Laurel’s growth in population and strategic location, bolstered by major highways facilitating commerce and transport, made it a prime area for residential and industrial expansion. However, the township’s zoning regulations permitted only expensive, detached single-family homes, thereby excluding population segments unable to afford such housing.

The plaintiffs sought judicial intervention to compel the township to address the housing needs of lower-income residents and those employed within the township.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. The Southern Burlington County NAACP filed suit against Mount Laurel in the trial court, claiming that the township’s zoning ordinance was invalid because it discriminated against low and moderate income families.
  2. The trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs and declared the zoning ordinance totally invalid, ordering Mount Laurel to create a plan to address the housing needs of low and moderate income individuals.
  3. Mount Laurel appealed to the Appellate Division, and the plaintiffs cross-appealed, seeking consideration of regional housing needs for low and moderate income families.
  4. The New Jersey Supreme Court certified the appeals before argument in the Appellate Division.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the zoning regulations of Mount Laurel unlawfully excluded low and moderate income families from living in the town, thus violating their substantive rights.

Rule of Law

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To determine whether municipal land use regulations unlawfully exclude certain economic groups, thereby violating their rights to access affordable housing within a community.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The New Jersey Supreme Court considered extensive evidence regarding Mount Laurel’s development, municipal policies, and the effects of its zoning regulations. It was evident that the township’s land use regulations were designed to attract certain types of development while excluding lower-income families.

The court recognized a statewide housing crisis, especially for low and moderate income families, and acknowledged that many municipalities similar to Mount Laurel adopted exclusionary zoning practices driven by fiscal interests without regard for non-fiscal human considerations.

Mount Laurel’s zoning policies were found to be motivated by a desire to maintain low local property taxes by encouraging developments that contribute favorably to the tax base, such as light manufacturing and expensive homes, while limiting cheaper rental accommodations.

This practice resulted in economic discrimination against those unable to afford the limited housing options available under the zoning ordinance. The court noted that such policies were not unique to Mount Laurel but were common among developing municipalities in New Jersey.


Conclusion Icon

The Court found that Mount Laurel’s zoning regulations were indeed exclusionary and violated the rights of low and moderate income families. It upheld the trial court’s decision that the zoning ordinance was invalid and mandated affirmative measures to address the housing needs of these income groups.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Exclusionary zoning practices that prevent low and moderate income families from accessing affordable housing within a municipality can violate their rights.
  2. Municipalities must consider non-fiscal factors in their land use regulations to prevent economic discrimination against certain population segments.
  3. Affirmative measures may be required by courts to ensure municipalities address the housing needs of all economic groups within their jurisdiction.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes exclusionary zoning practices and how do they impact the right to housing?

Exclusionary zoning practices are local land use regulations that limit or prevent certain demographic groups, typically lower-income families, from living in a community. These regulations can include large minimum lot sizes, bans on apartment complexes, or prohibitions on affordable housing units.

  • For example: A suburb enacts a zoning ordinance requiring single-family homes to be built on two-acre lots, effectively pricing out lower-income buyers seeking more modest homes or apartments.

How do municipalities justify zoning ordinances that may result in economic discrimination?

Municipalities may justify restrictive zoning ordinances by arguing for the preservation of community character, protection of property values, or fiscal benefits like maintaining a high tax base. However, such justifications must be balanced against the need for affordable housing and anti-discrimination policies.

  • For example: A city council argues that high-density housing is inconsistent with the rural character of the neighborhood, aiming to preserve open spaces and reduce traffic congestion.

What legal remedies exist for communities faced with exclusionary zoning?

Legal remedies for communities facing exclusionary zoning may include court orders mandating municipalities to revise their zoning ordinances to allow for diverse housing options or inclusionary zoning policies that require a percentage of new developments to be affordable.

  • For example: A court orders a municipality to amend its zoning laws to include multifamily housing districts, ensuring a mix of housing types catering to different income levels.


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