The owners of a home in the Courts section of Stone Harbor have sued the borough over an ordinance that restricts property owners in that section from increasing the size of their homes.
Kara and Kyle Sweet, who this summer were denied variances to build a 1,300-square-foot, two-story home on Weber Court, are challenging the decision, saying the height restriction in the ordinance was invalid and calling the borough’s actions “an improper attempt by the borough to create an historic preservation district.”
The Courts is composed of small bungalows on narrow lanes reminiscent of an earlier day. Residents of the bungalows have advocated for the right to construct second-floor additions, but are restricted from doing so by a 1980s-era ordinance that sets the cottages at a maximum of 600 square feet.
Some properties on the streets added second stories and decks before borough zoning ordinances removed owners’ ability to expand them beyond their original size. Those properties that were not renovated before the ordinance changes were essentially frozen at their current size.
As strongly as homeowners on the Courts have advocated for greater flexibility to expand, homeowners on the numbered streets that back onto the Courts have opposed them. Citing safety and security concerns and expressing worries about congestion and parking, these property owners have fought any rezoning.
And the fight has been a long one. The issue was specifically considered in the borough’s master plan reexamination in 2019. That document concluded that the one-story height restriction in the Courts should be altered.
In December 2021 the matter came to a head before the borough council, which was considering an ordinance change that would have allowed the bungalows that had not been expanded prior to the imposition of the height restriction to increase their living space by 60% above the 600-square-feet limit.
Property owners, mostly from the numbered streets that abut the Courts, argued against the ordinance change, which required a supermajority vote of the six-member council to pass. The measure failed when council members Frank Dallahan and Robin Casper voted no. Casper said her concern was that expansion would lead to demolition of the “quaint bungalows” in the Courts.
Many of those in the Courts expressed a sense of betrayal after investing years going through the cumbersome process the borough laid out for them. They spoke of fears, intimidation and efforts by some who opposed the ordinance change to incite protest.
Those who successfully opposed the ordinance change said they had substantive concerns and felt “demonized” by Courts residents.
The struggle was not over. The issue rose again at an August 2023 hearing of the borough’s Zoning Board. At the meeting the Sweets presented an application for variances to build a 1,300-square-foot, two-story home on Stone Court. They presented a design to the board for a house that was smaller than other houses on the block or in the immediate neighborhood. Their application was denied.
In many ways the Zoning Board hearing was a replay of earlier arguments against expansion in the Courts. Six of the 12 individuals who spoke during the public hearing listed addresses on 110th Street, which abuts Stone Court. All opposed the application. Four individuals who spoke in support of the application listed addresses on Weber Court or Stone Court.
On Friday, Oct. 27, the Sweets took their opposition to the zoning restrictions to court.
In their complaint, they claim that an “apparent, misguided notion for nostalgia” for an earlier era in the town’s history led the borough to unreasonably and arbitrarily refuse their application.
They argue that “the height restriction is an unlawful attempt to arbitrarily spot-zone individual, noncontiguous blocks, inconsistent with accepted principles of zoning and planning” and call for the height restriction to be invalidated.
They call the borough’s actions “an improper attempt by the borough to create an historic preservation district.”
The Sweets are asking the court to set aside the Zoning Board’s denial of the variances and order the board to approve the application. They also ask for “reasonable attorneys’ fees.”
The suit comes 10 days after the Oct. 17 council vote that established a special counsel on zoning issues. The resolution for a special counsel stated that the need for legal assistance on zoning litigation was “anticipated.”
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at firstname.lastname@example.org.