Saturday, April 27, 2013

Can a local government sue its own zoning board?

The legal question concerning whether a local government can sue its own board of zoning appeals seems to be gaining steam. First, my own case, Cheatham County v Cheatham County Board of Zoning Appeals and Randall and Margaret Mooneyhan, was decided last November. The issue was not directly addressed in that one however by the Court of Appeals because the County withdrew its appeal shortly before the oral argument before the court, and the only issue which remained was whether attorneys’ fees should be awarded to the Mooneyhans. However, in addressing this issue, both the majority and concurring opinions seem to clearly indicate significant doubt about the ability of a local government to sue its own board.

Meanwhile, over in Collierville, in a case involving the non-conforming status of billboards, the zoning board evidently voted not to require the owner to take the offending billboards down, and the Board of Mayor and Alderman have voted to sue the zoning board in order to have the billboards removed. This turn of events arises out of an interesting decision issued previously by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Abbington Center v Town of Collierville (Tenn. App. 2012). We previously discussed this case.

Here in Nashville, there are two other cases with the same issue involved. In Metro Nashville v Metro BZA and Lamar, the local government suit its own board of zoning appeals arguing that its decision finding the replacement of a mechanical sign face with a digital sign face was not permitted under the terms of the local zoning ordinance and was not protected by the Tennessee Non-Conforming Property Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §13-7-208. Among the issues raised, was the propriety of a suit by the local government against its own zoning board. The Davidson County Chancellor, Claudia Bonnyman, ruled in favor of Metro Nashville, finding that the local government could sue.

However, just last Friday, in a case styled Metro Nashville v Metro BZA and CBS Outdoor Inc., CBS filed a motion to dismiss raising the same argument, but the local government lacked standing to file suit against its own zoning board. This time, a different Chancellor, Carol McCoy, concluded that the local government could not sue its own board of zoning appeals.

Both cases, as you might suspect, are going up on appeal. There are certainly policy arguments on both sides. The ultimate answer to the question may rest with the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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