Fine for zoning violation can only be imposed “upon conviction” in court

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Claybanks Township v Paul and Tana Feorene
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 8, 2015

Paul and Tana Feorene own 40 acres of land in Claybanks Township. They built a greenhouse, gazebo and hay barn on their property without obtaining zoning permits according to the Claybanks Township Zoning Ordinance (CTZO). The Township sued the Feorenes and requested that the trial court order them to remove the structures, but the Township was ordered to issue the zoning permits at the standard fee for the three structures.

The Township argued that the trial court did not follow CTZO and Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA). CTZO §§ 203 and 207 require a zoning permit to be obtained before construction begins and that any construction before a permit is obtained is a nuisance and must be abated. There is no question that the Feorenes violated CTZO by building the structures without permits; therefore the issue becomes the abatement of the nuisance.  The abatement could be accomplished either by razing the buildings or issuing the permits, and courts have broad discretion in granting relief appropriate to the circumstances. Once the Feorenes were notified that they needed zoning permits for the structures they attempted to get them; however, the Township conditioned granting the permits on the payment of a $3,100 fine it had already imposed on the Feorenes for violating CTZO. The Feorenes refused to pay the fine and built the buildings anyway.

CTZO §208 imposes a $100 fine “upon conviction” of violation of the CTZO, and each day the violation continues shall be deemed a separate offense.  Applying the rules of statutory interpretation, the court concluded that because the Township had not brought an action in court there could be no “conviction.”  As a result, the $3,100 fine was inappropriate.

The Feorenes claimed that Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA) also provided an alternative basis to affirm the trial court’s conclusion. RTFA was enacted to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits.  To assert an RTFA the Feorenes had to prove: (1) the challenged activity constitutes a “farm” or “farm operation”; and (2) the farm or farm operation conforms to the relevant generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPs). The Feorenes did not cite any relevant GAAMPs; and so the court rejected the RTFA argument.

The trial court ruling was affirmed.

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