Unlike a redevelopment area designation, which must be based upon substantial credible evidence in the record, there is nothing in the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL) that requires the contents of a redevelopment plan to be based upon substantial evidence. On the contrary, as recognized by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court in Bryant v. City of Atlantic City, the LRHL “[r]equires only that the plan include an ‘outline’ for the development of the project area indicating [among other things] (1) its relationship to certain local objectives [and] (2) the proposed land uses and building requirements in the project area[.]” 309 N.J.Super. 596, 617-618 (1998). This general rule, however, as it applies to redevelopment plan amendments was questioned recently in an unreported case entitled St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church v. City of Vineland, et al., decided by the Appellate Division on July 15, 2008.

In St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church, a municipal governing body, after receiving a proposal from the designated redeveloper, amended a redevelopment plan to provide for the operation of a homeless shelter as a permitted use within the zone. Although the city followed the procedures outlined in N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-7 required for amending a redevelopment plan which, as already stated, do not require specific findings based upon substantial evidence, the Court was nevertheless convinced that the substantial evidence test must be applied to a redevelopment plan amendment where, as here, “it calls for such a significant change in the permitted use in the area.” Indeed, the Appellate Division could not find “any reason, of public policy or otherwise, for a distinction between the level of proof required to create a redevelopment zone, and that which should be required for a significant change in use within that zone . . .” and in light of the city’s failure to furnish such evidence to support it inclusion of homeless shelters in the redevelopment plan the Court found the ordinance amending the redevelopment plan to be “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”

Also underlying the decision in St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church was the Court’s discomfort with city’s decision to modify the permitted uses within the redevelopment zone in response to the designated redeveloper’s proposal. Although homeless shelters were identified in the city’s master plan as being needed facilities, the master plan “did not designate a [specific] geographic area . . . where such shelters should be located[]” and, as such, “without further justification,” the Court was of the opinion that the city’s action in amending the redevelopment plan was “analogous to ‘spot zoning,’ the impermissible re-zoning of a lot or parcel of land for the benefit of an owner for a use incompatible with surrounding uses, and which does not further the comprehensive zoning plan.”

Although St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church is not precedential, it raises doubts about how New Jersey courts will evaluate the validity of substantial amendments to redevelopment plans that change major land use requirements applicable to a zone, such as the permitted uses, especially when such modifications are made in response to a redeveloper’s proposal.