The present zoning enabling statute, the Municipal Land Use Law, defines a lot as “a designated parcel, tract or area of land established by a plat or otherwise, as permitted by law and to be used, developed or built upon as a unit.” (I will call this a “zoning lot.”)The identification of a zoning lot is important not only for purposes of determining whether a proposed development complies with the standards of the zoning ordinance, but the sale of anything other than a whole lot may be an illegal subdivision subject to action by the municipality to rescind the sale and impose a financial penalty.
There is a widespread, but erroneous, assumption that lots depicted on a tax map (“tax lots”) are zoning lots; that the two are the same thing. This is not the case.
A statute commonly known as the “Map Act,” formerly permitted the filing of plats or maps for the purpose of designating lots for later conveyance. Under the Municipal Planning Act in the 1950s, municipalities were permitted to require subdivision approval for such map filings, which authority is today derived from the Municipal Land Use Law. In 1967 to New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that adjacent lots in common ownership that do not conform to the zoning ordinance’s minimum lot size requirement are deemed to have “merged” and cannot be separately conveyed without subdivision approval. This rule has been refined since that time to confirm that it does not apply to lots created by means of subdivision review under either the Municipal Planning Act or the Municipal Land Use Law, to “back to back” lots that front on different streets or to L-shaped lots that would isolate a corner lot. Thus, the mere fact that a tax map may, consistent with a pre-subdivision filed map, reflect that adjacent lots in common ownership are separate tax lots does not mean that each of those tax lots may be used or separately conveyed as a zoning lot.
There is even authority that a tax assessor may be precluded from consolidating tax line items (and thereby tax lots) in common ownership even if it has been established that the lots had merged for zoning purposes.
However, if the tax map depicts lots that conform to the municipal development standards, the separate conveyance of these lots is a specific exception from the definition of subdivision for which municipal approval is required.
Another case in which a zoning lot may not be the same as a tax lot can occur when an MLUL lot crosses a municipal border. A tax lot normally cannot do this.
It therefore can be quite important to research the history of property to determine how the lot was created and not just assume that because lots are separated on the tax map they can be separately conveyed.