In a decision filed on April 22, 2016, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that a cash advance financial institution had established an equitable estoppel which prevented Metro Nashville from revoking a permit which had erroneously been issued. The case, Concord Finance, Inc., d/b/a Speedy Cash v Metro Board of Zoning Appeals and Tennessee Quick Cash, Inc., Docket #15-1362-III, is extremely interesting inasmuch as its result is very unusual.
I will summarize the facts quickly although the opinion is quite lengthy and in these vested rights/estoppel cases, the factual setting is always the most important. Having said that, the essential facts are that Speedy Cash applied for a building permit in September 2014 to renovate and remodel an existing convenience market on Dickerson Pike. While the application for the building permit was pending, the Metro Council amended the zoning ordinance in a way which would prohibit the location of a cash advance retail store at that location. Ultimately Metro Codes decided to go ahead and issue the permit notwithstanding the passage of the new zoning regulation. The construction was virtually completed when on April 21, 2015, the Metro Zoning Administrator issued a stop work order and revoked the building permit. The stop work order noted that the permit had been issued in error. Speedy Cash had spent approximately $600,000 in the construction effort.
Speedy Cash appealed the decision to the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals, but the administrative body upheld the decision of the Metro Zoning Administrator. From there, an appeal was taken pursuant to the common law writ of certiorari.
The court looked at three different issues: vested rights and the pending ordinance doctrine, equitable estoppel, and standing. It is worthwhile to read the entire opinion, but again, I will very briefly summarize the decision of the court.
The court found against Speedy Cash with regard to the vested rights doctrine. The court found that the undisputed facts indicated that the new zoning ordinance became effective on November 19, 2014. The building permit was not issued until December 2, 2014. "Issuance of a permit for a building that does not comply with the law renders the permit illegal and, therefore, invalid and of no effect as of the date of its issuance…" Slip Opinion at 12.
The court engaged in some additional analysis based on the pending legislation doctrine, but frankly, I think the summary above encapsulates the significant holding. Ultimately, if a building permit is issued in violation of the existing law at the time of issuance, it is simply void and of no effect. It doesn't make any difference how much construction was completed or how much it cost.
The court then turned to the equitable estoppel argument. Once again, the law is not favorable for Speedy Cash. The equitable estoppel doctrine applies only very rarely to governmental entities. The court cited Sexton v Sevier County, 948 S.W. 2d 747, 751 (Tenn. App. 1997) as an example. There are many others.
However in this case, the court concluded that Metro's conduct clearly induced and caused detrimental reliance by Speedy Cash and given the fact that the building was completely constructed and its design customized for use as a cash advance retail outlet, the doctrine should apply. The important facts related to the original hesitation by Metro Codes to issue the permit, a review by Metro Codes, and a final decision indicating that the permit would be issued and in fact was issued, because it was "grandfathered" in. Most likely, that determination was incorrect; but its effect was to induce the applicant to move forward with the construction effort and spend a very significant amount of money.
Accordingly, the court found in favor of the applicant (Speedy Cash) and reversed the decision of the Metropolitan Board of Zoning Appeals.
Finally, one remaining issue was determined by the court. A competitor, Tennessee Quick Cash appeared before the Board of Zoning Appeals and also participated in the arguments before the Chancery Court. Tennessee Quick Cash admitted that it did not have a store within a quarter mile of the Speedy Cash location. The court noted that in order to have standing, Tennessee Quick Cash must show a direct and palpable injury, a special injury not common to the public generally. City of Brentwood v Metro Board of Zoning Appeals 149 S.W. 3d 49, 58 (Tenn. App. 2004). Tennessee Quick Cash argued that its status as a business subject to the same regulatory structure as the petitioner gave it standing. The court concluded however that the threatened injury necessary to confer standing in a zoning case must be related to the use of the property – dust, noise, traffic, or something similar. Nothing like that appeared in the record with regard to Tennessee Quick Cash, and it certainly didn't flow simply from being a business competitor. Therefore, the court concluded that Tennessee Quick Cash had no standing to speak before the Board of Zoning Appeals and had no standing before the Chancery Court.
This final holding is somewhat unusual, but certainly understandable. It reinforces the concern that any land use attorney has when representing a business competitor who is not located within a short distance from the project itself. In this case, the court used a quarter of a mile, and as it happens, that is my usual rule of thumb: I always look to see if my client (or conversely, an opponent to my client's project) is located within a quarter of a mile of the proposed project. There are some Tennessee cases which suggest 2000 feet, and certainly if your opponent is located that far away that's even better, but a quarter of a mile has always seemed to me to be a reasonable distance. If the objecting party is located more than a quarter of a mile away from the project, there's a pretty strong likelihood that there is no standing.
Anyway, this case gives us three valuable lessons on zoning law. First, vested rights are hard to establish under the Tennessee common law, where you need both a building permit and substantial construction. But more than that under the circumstances of this case, even if you obtain a building permit and even if you engage in substantial construction, if the building permit itself did not comply with the existing law at the time of the issuance of the permit, the permit is most likely void and there are no rights to vest.
Remember also, that the Tennessee Vested Rights Act became effective after the events in this case, on January 1, 2015, but it probably would not have made any difference. The Tennessee Vested Rights Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-4-310 (b)-(k), requires only the issuance of a building permit, and unlike the common law, it does not require any construction in order to vest. But, once again, if the building permit was void at the time of issuance by virtue of the fact that it did not comply with the zoning or other land development regulations in effect at the time of its issuance, then there are probably no rights which have vested even pursuant to the terms of the statute. The building permit must comply with the local regulations, and if not, it is not very helpful in future litigation.
The second lesson is that even though it is extremely unusual, every once in a while, given unusual facts, an equitable estoppel can be made out against a local government. It doesn't happen often, but from time to time it can be very effective.
Finally, and perhaps a more frequent issue which can come up in virtually any zoning board hearing, the standing of a business competitor is certainly undercut by the Chancellor's decision. The business competitor needs to demonstrate that it is within a short distance from the project, like anyone else, or have some other overwhelming reason that it should have the right to contest the project. Otherwise it simply lacks standing to participate.