Existing landscaping insufficient to meet ordinance buffer standards

by Hannah Dankbar

Schall v City of Williamston
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 4, 2014

William and Melanie Schall brought suit to compel their neighbors, D&G Equipment, Inc., owned by Elden and Jolene Gustafson to comply with the City of Williamston’s zoning ordinance that requires a special use permit to allow outdoor display of farm implements for sale.  The ordinance also requires a landscaped buffer zone to shield plaintiffs’ property from the sales display. The Schalls sought a writ of mandamus to compel the city and its contract zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance. The trial court found that the Gustafson’s use of their property violated the city’s zoning ordinance and ordered for the zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance.

As an initial matter the Court of Appeals affirmed that the Schalls had standing to bring the suit.  As abutting neighbors, the Schells “have a real interest in the subject matter of the controversy.  Nothing in state law indicates that private parties are limited in their ability to ask the court to abate a nuisance arising out of the violation of a zoning ordinance.

The requirements for a landscape buffer are defined in § 74-7.101 as “a minimum 15 feet wide” and “a staggered double row of closely spaced evergreens (i.e., no farther than 15 feet apart) which can be reasonably expected to form a complete visual barrier at least six feet in height within three years of installation.” The planning commission can only modify this requirement with “a written request identifying the relevant landscape standard, the proposed landscaping, how the proposed landscaping deviates from the landscaping standard, and why the modification is justified.”

In the present case, there was no “written request” to modify the ordinance standards. Even assuming that the site plan and the zoning administrator’s written and oral submissions to the planning commission were sufficient to meet this standard, and that the modified landscape included utilizing existing vegetation as part of the buffer, it must “achieve the same effect as the required landscaping.” The minimum standards of the ordinance apply except if the standard is reached with existing vegetation.

At the time of the lawsuit the buffer did not meet the standard, but the question became whether the buffer will meet the standard in three years. Based on its review of the expert testimony the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the landscaping could not meet the standards of the ordinance and, therefore, that the Gustafsons were in violation of the zoning ordinance.

The zoning ordinance is clear and unambiguous and the trial court did not err in granting  summary disposition by finding no material disputed fact that defendants’ buffer failed to comply with the zoning ordinance and therefore was an abatable nuisance per se.

 

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