Requiring conditional use permit for residential substance abuse service facilities does not violate ADA

by Gary Taylor

Get Back Up, Inc. v. City of Detroit
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, March 13, 2015

Get Back Up operates a 160-bed all male residential facility in downtown Detroit, providing substance abuse treatment and counseling, education, and job training opportunities.  In August 2007 it purchases an unused school building from Detroit Public Schools for approximately $500,000.  The building is located in B4-H, General Business/Residential Historic zoning district.  The B4-H District allows boarding schools, child care institutions, nursing homes, religious residential facilities, adult day care centers, hospitals, libraries and religious institutions (among other uses) by right.  It lists “residential substance abuse service facilities” as one of several conditional uses requiring the satisfaction of 15 stated criteria before being allowed.  Get Back Up originally received approval of its conditional use application for the building in the B4-H District from the Building Safety and Engineering Department, but the Russell Woods-Sullivan Area Homeowners Association appealed the approval to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).  The BZA voted to reverse the decision.  Get Back Up appealed the BZA decision to Wayne County Circuit Court, and after bouncing around between circuit court and the BZA several times the circuit court affirmed the BZA’s denial.  Appeals to the Michigan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court were unsuccessful.  After this, Get Back Up filed a complaint in federal court, claiming that the denial violated the American’s with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act.  The federal district court also ruled in favor of the city, and Get Back Up appealed.

Get Back Up argued that requiring residential substance abuse service facilities to obtain a conditional use permit when other similar uses are allowed by right is discriminatory.  The 6th Circuit disagreed, finding that the ordinance does not allow any materially similar use to operate by right in any B4 zoning district.  Residential substance abuse service facilities are treated the same as many other residential uses such as multi-family dwellings, emergency shelters, rooming houses, and fraternities and sororities.  Furthermore, the court found that the other uses cited by Get Back Up in support of their case (nursing homes and hospitals) are not materially similar to residential substance abuse service facilities.  Hospitals are not residential uses, and they tend to have substantial impact on their immediate surroundings and are particularly well suited for busy commercial districts like B4 districts.  While nursing homes are residential uses, their residents are “often physically disabled and they rarely leave the premises….[They are a] uniquely sedate and unburdensome use, having relatively little impact on traditional zoning concerns like noise and traffic.”

The court also found no merit in Get Back Up’s argument that the 15 criteria for approving a conditional use permit are unconstitutionally vague.  The phrases “detrimental to or endanger the social, physical, environmental or economic well being of surrounding neighborhoods,” “use and enjoyment of other property in the immediate vicinity,” and “compatible with adjacent land uses” are terms with “common-sense meanings” and are not so vague as to fail to provide fair notice to applicants of what is prohibited.”

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in favor of the City of Detroit.

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