Monday, February 5, 2018

Brown v Metro Nashville Board of Zoning Appeals, 2018 WL 522419 (Tn Apps 2018)

This case is an interesting illustration of interpretation of zoning terms, originally construed by the Metro Zoning Administrator, upheld by the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals, and affirmed on appeal to both the trial court and the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

As the Zoning Administrator and the Board construed and applied the Code to the proposed “flex loan” business, the question to be resolved was which of the existing use classifications flex loans most resembled. The meaning of a zoning ordinance and its application to a particular circumstance are, in the first instance, questions for the local officials to decide; accordingly, courts give wide latitude to local officials who are responsible for implementing zoning ordinances, Whittemore v. Brentwood Planning Comm’n., 835 S.W.2d 11, 15-16 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992). “There is a strong presumption of validity favoring the actions of a zoning agency when applying and interpreting its own ordinances, and a reviewing court will defer to a zoning board’s interpretation and application of its ordinance, unless such interpretation or application is capricious, arbitrary or discriminatory.” Harding Acad. v. Metro. Gov’t. of Nashville & Davidson Cty., 207 S.W.3d 279, 286 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).

The competing definitions here were a traditional bank vs. a cash advance type of institution. The zoning administrator determined that the “flex loan” concept was more of a cash advance type financial institution, rather than a traditional bank.

Given the tremendous discretion in these kinds of interpretations, it certainly not unusual that the trial and appellate courts both found the rationale and conclusions of the zoning administrator and the board of zoning appeals to be reasonable and not arbitrary or capricious.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why a cash advance institution should be treated differently from a zoning standpoint than a traditional bank. Why is there a separation requirement in the first place? This sounds more like an anticompetitive enactment than a zoning issue. For example, in what way is a traditional bank significantly different from a cash advance institution when looked at from the standpoint of the surrounding land uses? Certainly the functions inside the buildings may be somewhat different, but the impact on surrounding land uses would seem to be pretty much the same.

Of course, a challenge to the distinction in the legislative zoning scheme would be equally as difficult, and would most likely lead to exactly the same result. Our courts are very deferential when examining legislative distinctions, particularly in zoning ordinances, and the challenge the cash advance definition as being not dissimilar from a traditional bank is most likely going to lose in any event.

This is an interesting case, but illustrates that challenging these interpretations of definitions within the zoning code are very difficult to win.

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