Thursday, November 1, 2018

Cunningham v Bedford County -- Justification for Zoning Changes

Returning to this recent and very interesting case concerning zoning changes (a copy of which can be found here), keep in mind that challenging any legislative enactment is a difficult task. The Court of Appeals in Cunningham, cited many of the leading cases in the state, including Fallin v Knox County Board of Commissioners, 656 S.W. 2d 338 (Tenn. 1983), for the proposition that local legislative bodies are given broad discretion in enacting or amending zoning ordinances.

When the act of a local governmental body is legislative, judicial review is limited to whether any rational basis exists for the legislative action and, if the issue is fairly debatable, it must be permitted to stand as valid legislation.

McCallen v City of Memphis, 786 SW 2d 633, 640 (Tenn. 1990).

The applicant argued that the opposition of nearby residents did not provide a basis on which the commission could lawfully refuse to rezone his property. Frankly, I agree with this point. It is not for the nearby residents to show a basis for a decision. From my perspective it takes the testimony of an expert witness, usually a land planner, to discuss whether a particular zoning classification on a particular property is rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective. Certainly, the residence may, at a public hearing, expressed their opinions. But those opinions are not well-informed and although they may have a political impact, have little or no impact on a judge making a final decision about the sustainability of the decision of the local legislative body.

Unfortunately, the cases relied upon by the applicant here were not legislative cases but rather administrative cases with a different standard of proof. The court easily blew through those, basically finding that neither of those cases was apposite to the facts presented here.

Interestingly, from my perspective, the Court of Appeals, sites an old favorite case of mine, Day v City of Decherd, 1998 WL 684533 (Tenn. App. 1990). In that case, Judge Cantrell, speaking for the Court of Appeals, noted that “legislative classifications in a zoning law are valid of any possible reason can be conceived to justify them.” And in an interesting comment on our political system:

Legislators, however, do what legislators two: they listen to their constituents; they test the wind; they try to please as many people as possible, consistent with the Constitution and a good conscience. And they are not to be condemned for doing so. That is their job.

Indeed, the Day case is somewhat similar. The owner there asked for a zoning change from residential to commercial as well, and ultimately did not have the votes to have it pass. There is one distinctive difference however, in the Day case, an urban planner, advise the planning commission that he had reservations about zoning this particular property commercial given other plans for that area of the city. As a result, there was an expert witness, so to speak, who provided some slim but necessary insight into the land use planning process and a reason to deny the zoning request.

In the Cunningham case on the other hand, the opposite appears to be true. Lisa Keylon, an urban planner by training and education, testified that this land was prime for commercial use. She testified that she thought the property should be rezoned to commercial. Now of course, in the absence of testimony by the plaintiff, a court must assume that most zoning enactments are valid. However, I feel certain that the plaintiff in this case adduced some proof, from an urban planner or otherwise, about the invalidity of the ordinance. At that point it seems to me that the burden should shift to the local legislative body to produce its own proof. Further, it appears that the County planners themselves testified the other way, that is, that the zoning change should be granted. Again, the Court of Appeals decision does not comment about this important testimony. The court focused solely on the adjacent neighbor and his opposition. But from my perspective, the neighbors' testimony, standing alone, in the face of expert proof from the plaintiff (if there was any) would insufficient to win the case for the local government. And since the planners from the local government itself seem to agree with the plaintiff’s position, that makes the plaintiff’s case even stronger.

The Court of Appeals relied on the neighbor’s testimony at the public hearing as providing a rational basis. It’s not clear to me that that is entirely appropriate. I think that if the plaintiff presented an expert who concluded that the zoning change was appropriate and had a rational basis, and furthermore that the existing zoning which was residential, had no rational basis, then the local legislative body should have been required to change the zoning.

Bear in mind, it’s very possible to have two or more zoning classifications which meet the rational basis test. For example, in this case, perhaps this property, from an urban zoning standpoint, could reasonably be used for residential or commercial purpose. If that’s the case then the local legislative body has the choice of either one. But without knowing more, it is difficult to reach a final conclusion concerning this issue as it regards this particular set of facts. However, the rational basis with regard to a zoning change cannot simply be provided by a neighbor. Either, the plaintiff fails to present expert proof, in which case the presumption of validity controls and the local government wins. Or, alternatively, if the plaintiff presents expert proof tending to show that there is no rational basis for the current zoning and that commercial zoning would have a rational basis, then either the local government must present its own expert and the court makes a decision between the two experts, or if the local government presents no expert proof, then the plaintiff should prevail.

However, our courts here in Tennessee have been very reluctant to even go that far and this decision in Cunningham is certainly consistent with other decisions where expert proof has been presented by the plaintiff, none from the local government, and yet somehow the local government nonetheless prevails. See for example, Family Golf v Metro Nashville, 964 S.W. 2d 264 (Tenn. App. 1997) (perm. app. denied April 6, 1998).

The point here is to recognize the difficulty of challenging a zoning change. Very few of those challenges are successful.

One final note: The Court of Appeals analyzed the denial of the zoning request as one section of its analysis, and then in another section analyzed the claims associated with substantive due process. From my perspective, those two sections could easily be combined. The basic challenge to a zoning change is really pursuant to substantive due process. The “fairly debatable rational basis test” arises out of substantive due process. In fact, the “fairly debatable” rule was applied in the first US Supreme Court case, Euclid v Ambler Realty, 272 US 365 (1926) (“If the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes be fairly debatable, the legislative judgment must be allowed to control.”). Over the years, the analysis has perhaps become more sophisticated with differing standards for fundamental rights and suspect classifications, but the basic test was laid down in Euclid almost 100 years ago.

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