by Hannah Dankbar
City of Helena v Svee
(Montana Supreme Court, November 25, 2014)
In January 2009 the Helena, Montana City Commission amended its zoning ordinance to create a wildland-urban interface district (WUI district). The district overlays the City’s other zoning districts. The WUI district, in part, provides:
A. Structures located within the wildland-urban interface district may not have exposed, wooden roofing materials, whether treated or untreated, and must have noncombustible or fire resistant roofing materials that are rated Class C or higher in accordance with ANSI/UL 790 or ASTM E 108 or any equivalent test.
B. Existing roofs that undergo renovation, alteration, or repairs that involve more than ten percent (10%) of the square footage of the affected roof plane must meet the requirements of this chapter. If the renovation, alteration, or repair involves more than fifty percent (50%) of the square footage of the area of the entire roof, then the entire roof must comply with the requirements of this chapter.
The Svees received notice that their homeowners insurance would be canceled because of the condition of their roof. Due to personal financial limits, the Svees repaired the part of the roof in most need of improvement. The project of replacing old wooden shingles with new ones began on August 12, 2011. On August 15, 2011 a city building official issued a stop work notice for the project, but the project was completed by the time the Svees received the notice. On September 8, 2011 the City filed criminal complaints against the Svees for re-roofing without a permit, these charges were later dismissed. On November 7, 2011 the City initiated a civil suit against the Svees in addition to the criminal charges. On December 6, 2011 the City filed a six-count complaint for failure to obtain a building permit; violation of the International Residential Code by failing to obtain a building permit; violation of the International Residential Code by installing new roof covering over an existing roof covering; violation of the International Residential code by using excess applications of roof covering; violation of Helena City Code by using illegal roofing materials; and creating a public nuisance. The Svees challenged the limitations the WUI district places on roofing materials, but not the creation of the WUI district itself.
Both parties moved for a summary judgement, and the City dropped all of the complaints except for the complaint citing a violation of the WUI Ordinance. The Svees claimed that the Ordinance was invalid on statutory and constitutional grounds. The District Court did not address the constitutional claim, but declared, “the Svees’ claims seeking a declaration that the City had no legal authority to adopt or enforce Helena City Code § 11-41-2 . . . are GRANTED.” The City filed an appeal and the Svees filed a cross-appeal challenging the dismissal of their constitutional argument and the denial of attorney fees.
The first issue discussed was whether the District Court was wrong to judge § 11-41-2 as an impermissible building code, rather than a zoning ordinance. The Montana Legislature authorized cities and counties to adopt only building codes that had been created by the Department of Labor and Industry . Zoning ordinances are left to cities and counties. The District Court ruled that, “the creation of the WUI zoning district was nothing more than the adoption of a building regulation under the guise of a zoning ordinance.” However, the Svees did not challenge the zoning district as a whole; they only challenged one section. District Court only overturned one section (§ 11-42-2). This Court found that this section of the WUI ordinance oversteps the bounds of zoning ordinances by defining which building materials can be used.
The third issue is whether the District Court erred in denying and dismissing the Svees’ constitutional arguments. The District Court ignored these claims because, the summary judgment, “resolve[d] the case in the Svees’ favor on non-constitutional grounds.” Montana Supreme Court “has repeatedly recognized that courts should avoid constitutional issues whenever possible.” The Court agreed with the District Court on this issue.
**Didn’t include concurring opinion.