Investigations by zoning board member outside the hearing process did not give rise to due process violation

by Kaitlin Heinen and Gary Taylor

Timothy Hutchinson v. Wayne Township Board of Zoning Appeals
(Ohio Court of Appeals, 12th Appellate District, September 10, 2012)

Tim Hutchinson filed an application for a conditional use permit from Wayne Township Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to operate a Halloween-themed nature walk on part of Jana Hutchinson’s farm, which was zoned A-1, agricultural district. The BZA held a hearing for Tim Hutchinson’s application in July of 2008. At this hearing, it was found that the nature walk would be open 6-8 weekends per year during the Halloween season from 5pm-midnight. Traffic would come from Wayne-Madison Road using two unpaved roads, while parking would be provided in nearby open fields. The BZA  found that Wayne-Madison Road is a narrow, two-lane, dead-end road with no lighting and with narrow berms that steeply slope into drainage ditches, although Hutchinson presented expert testimony from a traffic engineer that Wayne-Madison Road would be able to handle the additional traffic. The BZA also heard complaints from residents in the area, which addressed safety issues arising from the use of Wayne-Madison Road by drivers who are inexperienced with gravel roads as well as the peace and the security of the residents in area that may be affected by the increased traffic. The BZA adjourned the hearing in progress, expressing concern that Tim Hutchinson was not a proper applicant since he was only a tenant on the property and not the landowner. Jana Hutchinson was then joined on the application for a conditional use permit, and when the hearing resumed she provided additional information to BZA about security, traffic, road maintenance, and insurance for the nature walk.

In December of 2008, the hearing was reconvened. Tim Hutchinson testified that he estimated 500 cars would be expected at the nature walk each evening. However, BZA member Carleen Yeager stated that she had researched attendance at other Halloween-themed events and, to the contrary, 500 cars would be a “light night” and that nearly 1500 cars would be expected on a “good night.” Tim Hutchinson countered that the nature walk was new and that he was “starting off small.” At the end of the hearing, BZA member Jerry Gerber moved to deny the Hutchinsons’ application.  The vote was unanimous against the application. The Hutchinsons appealed the BZA’s oral denial of the application to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas and the case was remanded to the BZA for the issuance of a written decision.

In March of 2010, the BZA issued its written decision, which found that the Hutchinsons’ nature walk would be inconsistent and incompatible with the current uses of the surrounding area and would adversely affect the general welfare of neighboring residents in the area. The Hutchinsons’ appealed. In January of 2012, the common pleas court issued its decision that affirmed the BZA’s denial of the Hutchinsons’ application for a conditional use permit.

The issue before the Ohio Court of Appeals in this decision then is that “the common pleas court erred to the prejudice of the [appellants] by affirming the BZA’s decision.” The Hutchinsons claimed that the trial court erred in its affirmation of the BZA’s decision, even though the appellants had satisfied all requirements of the zoning resolution, and that the trial court erred in finding that their due process rights were not violated by BZA member Yeager’s outside investigation.

In regards to the Hutchinsons’ first claim, the township’s zoning code requires that conditional uses must meet several criteria, such as not adversely affecting the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of the surrounding area by threats of traffic hazards, noise disturbances, night lighting, fire hazards, etc. (Section 25.053). However, citing prior case law the court stated that satisfaction of these requirements does not make approval automatic, and that the township zoning code also requires the BZA to “give due regard to the nature and condition of all adjacent uses and structures” surrounding the proposed conditional use. After reviewing the record, the court found that the Hutchinsons did not satisfy all the requirements in the code. Despite the Hutchinsons’ presentation of an expert witness, the BZA had reason to find that the increased traffic would be incompatible with the surrounding area. Thus the trial court did not err in their decision to affirm the BZA’s denial on this count.

As for the due process violation alleged, “[t]he essence of due process dictates, at the very least, that an individual have an opportunity to be heard and to defend, enforce and protect his rights before an administrative body in an orderly proceeding.” Here, Yeager admitted to making “some calls” inquiring into the reasonable number of cars to be expected for a Halloween-themed event. The Hutchinsons argued that her statement negatively affected their ability to have a fair hearing, since they were not able to cross-examine Yeager’s informants as well as Yeager herself, at the risk of losing her vote. Again citing previous caselaw, the court stated that “[t]he combination of investigative, executive and adjudicative functions does not necessarily create a risk of bias or unfairness in an administrative adjudication.” The court noted that the BZA’s decision stated, in part, that it was denying appellants’ application because the Nature Walk “would significantly increase traffic flow, according to applicant’s testimony, by hundreds of cars each evening.” From this statement, according to the court, “it is clear that the BZA did not rely on Yeager’s view that as many as 1,500 cars would be traveling Wayne-Madison Road, but only that 500 cars would be on the road, as indicated by Tim Hutchinson.”

Further, the court noted that the BZA unanimously denied appellants’ application. Thus, even if Yeager’s statements demonstrated her own bias and prejudice toward the Nature Walk, the exclusion of her vote would not have altered the result.   No due process rights were violated.

The judgment of the trial court was affirmed, maintaining the denial of the Hutchinsons’ application for a conditional use permit to operate a Halloween-themed nature walk.

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