Buffer requirements

by Deb De Rugeriis
(Middletown NJ)

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: My question is how to interpret the term "abuts" in a zoning ordinance.

Our ordinance says this. Where a commercial business or industrial use abuts an existing residential zone, a landscaped buffer, at least 50 ft wide, shall be required along the perimeter and within the commercial, industrial or business use lot.

If the commercial property is across the road, would that be abutting?

Editors Comment: The short answer is that there is no way of knowing this without reading your entire zoning ordinance. Many cities now publish the zoning ordinance online, so you can look yourself to see if there is a definition of abuts in the definitions section of the zoning ordinance. If not, ask your city hall for their interpretation.

If you disagree with the city's interpretation, in most places that very same zoning ordinance will give you a procedure for appealing an administrative decision by filing a petition with the zoning board of appeals. (This board could have many different names, often including board of adjustment.) However, filing to request a variance will cost money and take time, and the result would be uncertain.

Having given you all of this advice, we will say that in most cities where we have worked, abutting property does mean that the private property lines directly touch at some point. If there is a public right-of-way for a street between two properties, most places do not consider that to be abutting.

If the street between the two properties is a private street, that is quite a different situation. The specific arrangement, with regard to who maintains the private street, whether the private street is situated entirely on one property or split between the properties, and any underlying legal documents, would matter.

The intention of the buffer requirement clearly is to screen residential property from the visual impacts of a commercial or industrial land use. Secondarily, the buffer also may serve to limit noise and even littering from causing a negative impact on the residential properties.

The language about the landscaped buffer being required within the commercial lot is intended to prevent some silly business owner from trying to say that the landscaping should be only half on the business property and half on the residential.

We have one more observation about your situation, since zoning administrators and definitely planning commission members read our pages. We think cities really should require landscape buffers along the public street where commercial property is across from residential land. However, a 50-foot-wide landscape buffer along a public street would seem fairly extreme, so a combination of privacy fencing and landscape buffering would be a more reasonable arrangement and could result in a handsome and functional buffer in less than a 50 foot width.

Cities need to do more to face the problem of rear loading, parking, and waste collection areas behind businesses. In fact, this is a strong rationale for either site plan review or conditional use permit requirements for all commercial and industrial development adjacent to or across the street from a residential zoning district.

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