Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Cunningham v Bedford County -- Intro

This case, decided at the end of October, is an illustration of the difficulties involved in defeating the local government regarding any kind of a zoning change. Whether the local government has granted the zoning change and the neighbors challenge the change, or deny the change and the applicant challenges the decision, it is very difficult for the losing party to successfully challenge the decision of the local government. It is once again one of those instances where fighting city hall is difficult to do.

Over the next couple of days, I will discuss this case. Today I will simply look at the factual background and procedural history as recited by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. You can find a copy of the case here.

The property involved in this case was zoned residential and the owner tried unsuccessfully several times to have the property rezoned for commercial use. This case arises out of his efforts to obtain a zoning change to commercial use filed in May 2013.

The court indicates that the Planning Commission recommended the zoning change from residential to commercial. However, at the next meeting of the local legislative body, while there was a motion and second to approve the rezoning, it failed to pass.

Nevertheless, the application was placed on the agenda for a subsequent meeting of the local legislative body and a public hearing was held as part of that meeting. The applicant and his attorney spoke in favor of the application and a resident of a local subdivision, located adjacent to the property, spoke against it. For one reason or another, there was a motion made to defer consideration of the zoning change and remand to the Planning Commission.

It’s unclear whether the case ever went back to the Planning Commission. The opinion does not indicate any further action by the Planning Commission. However, at the next meeting of the local legislative body, the application was again considered, and a motion was made to approve and seconded, but the motion failed. Neither Mr. Cunningham nor his attorney was given the opportunity to speak prior to the vote.

The failure to approve the requested zoning change was challenged by filing a declaratory judgment action in Chancery Court. Notice that in challenging a zoning change, the appropriate manner of doing so is by way of a declaratory judgment. In many other instances, on an appeal from the planning commission, on appeal from the board of zoning appeals, and on appeal from certain kinds of special zoning techniques from the local legislative body, the proper method is to file a petition for writ of certiorari. But where the local legislative body considers a straight zoning change, say from residential to commercial as in this case, the appropriate manner of challenging the decision is by way of declaratory judgment.

The plaintiff alleged that the denial of the zoning change was arbitrary, capricious and illegal and that there was no rational or justifiable basis for the decision of the local legislative body. The complaint also alleged violations of the applicant’s due process and equal protection rights and that the failure to grant a zoning change rendered the county liable for inverse condemnation/regulatory taking of the property.

There were four days of hearings before the trial court although the Court of Appeals does not indicate much by way of what testimony was adduced. The trial court ultimately found that:

– the decision of the local legislative body was arbitrary and capricious,
– the plaintiffs due process rights were violated,
– there was no regulatory taking,
– no violation of the sunshine law and
– the members of the local legislative body were acting within the scope of their authority in                   carrying out their duties.

The court ordered that the property be rezoned from residential to commercial, and awarded damages in the amount of $75,600 plus interest and attorneys fees in the amount of $10,000.

The plaintiff appealed seeking lost profits other damages and also asking that the trial court decision finding no regulatory taking be reversed. The defendants for their part, raised an additional issue as to whether or not the decision to deny the zoning change was arbitrary and capricious and violation of the plaintiff’s due process rights.

This case gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss not only the perils and pitfalls of challenging a local governmental decision concerning zoning changes, but also the various theories which might be used by a plaintiff to challenge such a decision. Since the Court of Appeals ultimately concludes that the trial court was incorrect in finding any violation of the law whatsoever, it also demonstrates how difficult it is to prevail under the circumstances.

We will take a look at the basic issues concerning zoning changes next time, discuss regulatory takings at a future date and then finally look at the procedural and substantive due process issues after that.