Proposed Certification Would Require Professional Training for Local Land-Use Officials

Colleen O'Dea | February 5, 2020 | Planning
Whether approving a backyard pool or reviewing the site for a building, local zoning officers are key players. Advocates say certification will help end confusion and contradictions
Credit: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr (BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Local zoning officials are involved in a large range of projects, from backyard pools to apartment buildings.

Zoning and land-use ordinances are probably the most complicated local regulations in New Jersey. Despite that, the knowledge and expertise of municipal land administrators varies widely from town to town, because there is currently no uniform training requirement for these officials.

That would change under legislation that unanimously cleared an Assembly committee on Monday. Co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), A-678 would require local zoning officers and administrators of land-use boards to be certified by the state. Huttle said the certification would “professionalize” these positions and noted that other municipal officials — including clerks, financial, tax and construction-code officers — already have to be certified.

“I think we all know the critical role that zoning officers and land-use board administrators play in our towns; obviously, they play a vital role in the development of our communities and the installation of new infrastructure projects,” Huttle said. “To professionalize zoning officers and land-use administrators is the right direction we can take.”

Bipartisan backing

Both Republican and Democratic members of the Assembly State and Local Government Committee agreed, with several saying that residents are very likely to interact with these officials. A municipal master plan and zoning laws determine how close a building can be from a neighbor’s property line and the rules for adding a deck or in-ground swimming pool to a backyard, and also apply to large apartments and warehouses. Though local regulations differ, the foundation for all these land-use decisions is the state Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL).

“The state has to be more and more consistent … and I think this is a first step,” said Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex). He added that local zoning officials have an “enormous amount of jurisdiction that a lot of people don’t understand. They’re almost as powerful as the mayor and council in what they do.”

Uniformity in implementing the state MLUL is especially important when considering large developments that span municipal borders, continued Karabinchak. “That is a disaster right now.”

If enacted, the bill would require all zoning officers and land-use board administrators to complete a 40- or 30-hour educational program, respectively, that could be taken online. They then would pass a test to be certified. The commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs would establish the standards, but coursework would include knowledge of the MLUL, zoning ordinances and master plans, site plan and subdivision reviews and ethical obligations. Zoning officers also would learn about conducting site inspections and enforcement actions. An officer with two years’ experience could be certified initially without having to complete the coursework or pass the test.

Certification would be good for five years and could be renewed provided an official completes continuing education credits. Huttle estimated the cost, to be borne by the official with the option for a municipality to reimburse them, at between $1,000 and $2,000.

Viewed as unfunded mandate

It was the expense that prompted the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which often opposes state mandates that do not include state funding to cover costs, to oppose the measure.

The legislation would permit municipalities to increase development application fees in order to raise funds to cover the cost to certify their employees. That will help large municipalities that handle a lot of applications, but not smaller ones that may deal with only a few but still have to have certified staff, said Frank Marshall, an attorney with the league.

“The costs will at some point be borne by the municipality and local taxpayers,” Marshall said. Even if a town does not reimburse officials for their educational expenses, the newly certified officials will ask for a raise, he said. “We see it as a mandate on local governments … The league would like to see that rather than this become a mandatory practice, to make it more permissive.”

Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset), vice chair of the committee, disputed Marshall’s contention that it would ultimately cost taxpayers.

“If there is consistency in the state, now everyone’s got this (certification), there is no competitive advantage of one employee over another,” he said. “There is no leverage over the hiring practice.”

Huttle said that she had worked with local officials in crafting the measure “to make sure this bill would be reasonable and not burdensome on too many municipalities.”

Marshall also objected to what he characterized as additional duties to help applicants being given to officials.

“The onus shouldn’t be on the municipality to guide applicants,” he said. “The onus should be on the applicant to navigate this system.”

Guiding the average citizen

Karabinchak bristled at that, saying that while developers of larger projects can afford attorneys and planners to help them through the process, the same can’t be said for the average citizen.

“The local homeowner who has never gone through this before needs that guidance,” he said. “That is what their taxes are paying for, for that help. Government is only here as a service to people. We are not here to make money. This is what zoning officers do in multiple places.”

A number of organizations, including those representing the state’s builders and real estate professionals, New Jersey Future and Rutgers University’s Center for Government Services, all support the measure.

Ilene Cutroneo of the New Jersey Association of Planning and Zoning Administrators said the group strongly supports certification as a way to “provide uniform consistency” in dealings with land-use regulations across the state. The association’s website indicates that there has been a push for such certification for more than a decade.

“When an application is filed, there will be no problem with the professional knowing how the process should work,” she said.

A 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the local zoning officials’ role in evaluating whether a development application is complete makes certification and professionalism even more important, Cutroneo said. It will prevent someone appealing a ruling by a land-use board or an official decision from “saying that the people who are making the decisions are not certified or qualified to be making the decisions.”

Michael Kates, an attorney and emeritus counsel of the association, supported the measure as a “good government” bill that would help give the public more confidence in local officials.

“They are your public, your residents, and the first people they are seeing with respect to a development application is the land-use board administrator and zoning official,” he said. If they cannot answer questions or provide assistance, it “leaves with the public a certain cynicism, a feeling the town isn’t really doing the job properly and that cynicism undercuts the respect for government.”