The team here at Neil Erwin Law recently gave a presentation to statewide municipal leaders on the topic, “Who Are You Calling Arbitrary? A Guide to Help Protect Your Land Use Decisions Without Inviting Lawsuits” because this is the typical reaction of decision-makers who, in good faith, believe they have made the right decision, only to be surprised by allegations to the contrary in a lawsuit.
So, how can local officials make zoning and subdivision decisions that benefit the community without inviting lawsuits?
Our summarized recommendation is to think inside the box: to place zoning and subdivision decisions inside a protective 4-sided virtual box, whose sides are:
This blog is on Part 1 of 4 of the Land Use Decision Box. Here are some excerpts from our presentation on the 1st side of the box, which is to BE CLEAR.
Have Clearly-Written Ordinances, Procedures, Staff Reports (…And Stick to Them!)
The first step to take in order to protect your decisions against potential lawsuits is to be clear in your written words. You want your written ordinances, procedures, and staff reports to be easy to perceive, understand, and interpret. If not, you may be subject to a lawsuit alleging you were arbitrary and capricious.
It’s All About the Written Word: Be Clear and Careful
Ambiguity (read: not clear) can lead to lawsuits due to open interpretation of an unclear zoning ordinance.
To make sure you have clearly-written ordinances, if your municipality already has zoning and subdivision ordinances, it is important for you to understand the zoning regulations on which you rely to make decisions. If there are certain portions of such regulations you see as potentially open to interpretation, ordinances can be drafted to amend such ambiguous regulations to make them clearer.
When drafting, considering, or making a decision involving zoning or rezoning, remember your purpose is clear: Be Clear and Careful.
Using Your Clearly-Written Procedures/Staff Reports and Sticking to Them
You need staff reports of some kind, even if a summary of what is being requested by the applicant.
Staff reports written by the community’s assigned liaison to the zoning commission (often the zoning administrator) and submitted to your town’s zoning commission, serve the purpose of providing a clear understanding of the application on which the zoning commission must make a decision.
What to do? The staff report should include information about the zoning and future land use for the property and whether there are any questions about the appropriateness of the application.
Basic Components of a CLEAR staff report to follow (model example of a staff report in a rezoning application can be found on our Powerpoint of this presentation, at http://www.neilerwinlaw.com/papers.html):
- Your header should properly and clearly provide a “snapshot” overview of the application.
- Provide a clear, complete description of location and current zoning
- Describe requested zoning, and state what zoning is permitted in the location. (Helpful note: Use-by-right zoning allows ANY of the permitted uses, not just the proposed one.)
- Describe the surrounding neighborhood.
- Clearly point out the relevant differences in the current and proposed zoning districts.
- State any additional issues that may result from rezoning.
- Explain the effect of the Master Plan on the rezoning application or at least whether the application is consistent with the future land use map.
- Provide any staff suggestions for other potential problems or solutions. It is not required to be in the form of a staff recommendation, but make the members aware of options for consideration.
Recent Cases on topic of BEING CLEAR:
G&H Development, LLC v. Nancy Penwell, et al., 13-0272, 2015 WL 3408796 (W.D. La. 5/27/15).
A developer sought approval for a subdivision of property zoned Residence-Agriculture for an approximately 150-lot subdivision arguing that the subdivision was a “use by right” under the R-A ordinance. The local MPC’s administrator rejected the application because the zoning of the property was R-A instead of R-1. Developer sued the MPC and Parish (as well as other individual defendants) for violation of its substantive due process rights. Defendants believed that the amendment section of the zoning ordinances applied to the development because it stated that the “subdivision or imminent subdivision of open land into urban building sites makes reclassification necessary and desirable.” The problem was “urban building site” was not defined in the Code or original ordinance, even though it had been consistently applied since inception.
In addition to proof of consistent application, a separate case from another state was cited by Defendants which interpreted the exact same language at issue to prove to the Court that the developer had no “of right” entitlement to develop the subdivision without rezoning. The Court agreed and held that the rejection of the application by the administrator was not arbitrary and capricious.
City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge v. Myers, 145 So.3d 320 (La. 2014).
La. Supreme Court, reversing the Baton Rouge district court on direct appeal, upheld the restrictive local definition of “family” for purposes of local zoning ordinance restricting permissible occupancy of homes in a single-family residential zone.
Definition: “Family is an individual or two (2) or more persons who are related by blood, marriage or legal adoption living together and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facilities; or not more than two (2) persons, or not more than four (4) persons (provided the owner lives on the premises) living together by joint agreement and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facilities on a non-profit, cost sharing basis.”
Full paper and Powerpoint on this topic, including a downloadable Land Use Decision Box can be found at: http://www.neilerwinlaw.com/papers.html.