In Ohio, “in accordance with a comprehensive plan” requirement does not require separate written document

by Gary Taylor

Apple Group, Ltd. v. Granger Township Board of Zoning Appeals
Ohio Supreme Court, June 17, 2015

Apple Group, Ltd., purchased 88 acres of undeveloped land in Granger Township in May 2006.  Apple sought to develop a 44-lot subdivision on approximately one-acre lots on its property.  The property was zoned R–1 Residential, which allows single-family and two-family homes on a minimum lot size of two acres. Instead of applying for a rezoning to R-2 Residential, which would allow up to two dwelling units per acre if they can be served by central sewer and water, Apple applied to the Granger Township Board of Zoning Appeals for 176 variances – four variances for each of the 44 proposed lots. The BZA denied the variance applications, and Apple filed an administrative appeal. The BZA’s decision was affirmed by the Medina County Court of Common Pleas based on the fact that the request for variances was in reality an attempt to rezone the land to a new district. Apple also filed a complaint seeking a declaration that Granger exceeded the authority granted to it under the Ohio Code by adopting a zoning resolution without first enacting a separate comprehensive plan.  A magistrate issued a decision denying Apple’s claims, concluding “the zoning resolution itself meets the statutory requirement of a comprehensive plan, because it has the essential characteristics of a comprehensive plan; it encompasses all geographic parts of the community and integrates all functional elements.” Apple appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals, Ninth District, and lost.  Apple then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ohio Revised Code 519.02(a) provides:

Except as otherwise provided in this section, in the interest of the public health and safety, the board of township trustees may regulate by resolution, in accordance with a comprehensive plan, the location, height, bulk, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures, including tents, cabins, and trailer coaches, percentages of lot areas that may be occupied, set back building lines, sizes of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, the uses of buildings and other structures, including tents, cabins, and trailer coaches, and the uses of land for trade, industry, residence, recreation, or other purposes in the unincorporated territory of the township….

Apple did not argue against the reasonableness of the zoning resolution, but rather that the zoning resolution cannot also function as a comprehensive plan.  According to Apple, a zoning resolution must implement a separately-adopted comprehensive plan, and the comprehensive plan must first be created to assure the public that the township’s zoning has been properly considered. Granger argued that its zoning resolution is the comprehensive plan referenced by Ohio R.C. 519.02(a). Thus, the dispute was over the classic question debated since the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) was promulgated: What is the meaning of the phrase “in accordance with a comprehensive plan”?

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that the majority of states adopting the SZEA have taken the view that “comprehensive planning requires some forethought and reasoned consideration, as opposed to a separate plan document that becomes an overarching constitution guiding development.”  Only a minority of states view the “in accordance” language as requiring an independent document separate from the comprehensive zoning ordinance.  After reviewing Ohio case law, the Court concluded that it “has never treated the term ‘comprehensive plan’ as a term of art” as it has come to be used by zoning professionals to refer to the separate written document.  The Court chose instead to adopt a six-part test first articulated by an Ohio Court of Appeals case to determine whether a zoning resolution can satisfy the comprehensive plan requirement:  Does the resolution (1) reflect current land uses; (2) allow for change; (3) promote public health and safety; (4) uniformly classify similar areas; (5) clearly define district locations and boundaries; and (6) identify the use(s) to which each property may be put?”  After finding that all six factors were met by the township’s zoning resolution the Court concluded that the resolution was enacted in “accordance with a comprehensive plan” in satisfaction of Ohio R.C. 519.02. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was affirmed.

Telltale signs your comprehensive plan is outdated

We talk at length in our upcoming planning and zoning workshops about the local comprehensive plan, its purposes and its goals.  Here is a link to a good article from “Better! Cities and Towns about how to gauge whether your comprehensive plan has become stale, meaningless or, in the worst-case, even harmful to your community.

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