Developer had protected property interest in commercial designation of development plan

by Melanie Thwing

Wedgewood v. Township of Liberty, OH
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, June 28, 2010)

In 2003, Wedgewood Limited Partnership entered into agreements to build a Wal-Mart and a gas station in Subarea 3 of the Planned Unit Development (PUD)  of the Wedgewood Commerce Center (WCC) in Liberty Township, OH.  The Trustees had rezoned the land to PUD in 1991, and the WCC Development Plan (WCCDP) was approved in 1992.  Subarea 3 totaled 220, 857 square feet. The WCCDP specified that only areas 3, 8, and 9 (a total of 499,930 square feet) were to be used for commercial development, although Subareas 4, 5, 6 and 10 had obtained permits from 1992 to 2003 to develop approximately 390,611 of commercial space.

In October of 2003, Wedgewood filed an application to amend the WCCDP to increase the land in area 3 to 227,825 square feet for the Wal-Mart project.  The project met significant opposition from the community, and the amendment was denied.  After months of increasing opposition, the Trustees in 2004 issued a set of “Zoning Instructions” meant to clarify the current WCCDP. These Instructions indicated a “floating cap” of 500,000 square feet of commercial zoning covering the entire WCC, unless a “major” modification plan was submitted and approved.  The Trustees issued a public statement indicating that “analysis reveals that the commercial development completed to date, and substantially through the approval process, has consumed most of the square footage imposed by the development plan as an overall cap,” and that “we are instructing our zoning department to refrain from issuing any zoning certificates for additional commercial development” unless the proposal goes through the major modification process.

Later that year, Wedgewood again applied for a zoning certificate, but this time to build a smaller 220.597 square foot structure that would fit entirely within Subarea 3. It was not submitted as a major modification plan, and the Commission for Zoning cited this as the reason for denial. Wedgewood countered, filing a claim with the district court for the Southern District of Ohio under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They argued that the Township’s adoption of the new Zoning Instructions violated Wedgewood’s procedural due process rights, and that the Zoning Instructions were void for vagueness. Summary judgment was granted in favor of Wedgewood, creating a permanent injunction preventing the Township from enforcing the new Zoning Instructions.  The Township immediately appealed to the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

§519.12 of the Revised Code of Ohio requires notice and a hearing before a zoning ordinance can be adopted or amended.  The Township argues this occurred in 1991 with the adoption of the PUD and the WCCDP, and that the document specifies a 500,000 square foot floating cap. Wedgewood counters that a floating cap had never entered discussion, and is not set forth anywhere in the WCCDP. The Court points out that if a floating cap was meant to exist, then it would be arbitrary to assign subareas 3,8, and 9 as commercial, and that it would ignore the strong correlation between the 500,000 square foot floating cap, and the 499,930 square foot total area for subareas 3, 8, and 9. The Court concludes that the Instructions, for these reasons, changed the WCCDP, which requires a hearing.

The Township then argues that Wedgewood had no protected property interest in the previous amendment procedures, while Wedgewood maintains it did. In Ohio a vested interest in property is given when an application for a building or zoning certificate is filed. Although Wedgewood did this, the Township counters that it was after the Instructions, meaning there was no interest prior. In Stile v. Copley Twp., the district court held a “protectable interest can arise under Ohio law when a government entity restricts a landowner’s ability to use his property.” Using this as a standard, the Court states that Wedgewood justifiably expected to use its land commercially up to 220,857 square feet, unless a proper amendment was passed.

The last issue is whether enacting the instruction without a hearing or providing prior notice to Wedgewood violated Wedgewood’s due process property interest. In Nasierowski Bros. Inv. Co. v. City of Sterling Heights the Court found that not providing notice has a severe and detrimental impact on how the owner can expect to use the land. This standard leads the Court to conclude that Wedgewood was singled out, that prior notice was mandatory, and that Wedgewood had the right to voice concerns.  The summary judgment for a permanent injunction was upheld.

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