MI Court of Appeals interprets MZEA provisions regarding appeal of site plan approval

by Hannah Dankbar

Julie Visser Trust v. City of Wyoming
(Michigan Court of Appeals, October 30, 2014)

In July 2012 the City of Wyoming rezoned a parcel of land from R-1, single family residential, to R-4, multifamily residential so John Lee Koetje, Koetje Investors Limited Partnership, and Koetje Investors-Chateau Limited Partnership could construct Phase 4 of Chateau Village Apartments.  Phases 1-3 of the project border the rezoned property. Visser Trust owns property zoned R-1 in Chateau Estates, due South of the property in question. In December 2012 after the rezoning, the Wyoming City Planning Commission approved Koetje’s revised site plan for construction. Visser Trust challenged (1) the site plan approval, and (2) the rezoning approval, and further raised issues concerning (3) an alleged Freedom of Information Act violation, (4) an illegal contract rezoning, and (%) a violation of negative restrictive covenants.  In July 2013 the trail court dismissed all counts, and Visser Trust appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Site plan. The trial court cited MCR 7.112(B) and said that because the plaintiff filed a complaint, and not an appeal of the planning commission’s site plan approval, the time for Visser Trust to object had passed. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA) does not specifically address whether and how an interested party may challenge the approval or denial of a site plan. There is no statutory provision that requires the plaintiff to challenge the Planning Commission’s approval of the site plan in a specific manner, as opposed to a general civil complaint. The trial court therefore erred in dismissing this part of Visser Trust’s lawsuit.

Rezoning. The plaintiff argues that the rezoning was invalid, contending that after Koetje added nine conditions to its voluntary offer of conditions , the entire application should have gone back through the Planning Commission for an additional public hearing and recommendation.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument.  The MZEA says the legislative body may refer any proposed amendments to the zoning commission for consideration and comment.  The word “may” indicates that the city council was not required to send the revisions back to the Planning Commission.

Contract zoning.  The plaintiff also argues that the rezoning was illegal “contract zoning”. MCL 125.3405 permits local governments to “approve rezoning subject to voluntary conditions offered by a landowner,” and lists several criteria for distinguishing between a legal voluntary offer and illegal contract zoning. Plaintiff submitted a letter from Koetje’s engineer regarding the rezoning, wherein Stalsonburg wrote that Wyoming “desires to accomplish this as ‘contract rezoning.’” Plaintiff argues that the letter supports the inference that Wyoming engaged in illegal contract zoning. Apart from the use of the phrase “contract rezoning” in the letter, however, plaintiff did not produce any any evidence that Wyoming required Koetje to agree to certain conditions.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of this count.

FOIA. Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in dismissing its FOIA claim. Donald Visser submitted a FOIA request, but did not identify for whom the documents were being requested. The plaintiff referenced Donald Visser’s request in the complaint, but the trial court noted that plaintiff neither submitted the FOIA request, nor was the request submitted on plaintiff’s behalf. The plaintiff therefore did not have standing to bring a FOIA complaint.

Negative restrictive covenants. Plaintiff alleged that the subject property was at one time part of a larger parcel that contained the same restrictions as lots in the Chateau Estates—i.e. restricted to single-family development. The trial court found this accusation vague and unclear, and that plaintiff failed to produce any documentary evidence to prove this allegation.

“The essential elements of a reciprocal negative easement are: (1) a common grantor; (2) a general plan; and (3) restrictive covenants running with the land in accordance with the plan and within the plan area in deeds granted by the common grantor.”  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s findings that the questioned property was not part of the same development as the plaintiff’s property, and that the court was not able to find any documentation to support a contrary conclusion.

The trial court erred in determining that it did not have jurisdiction to hear plaintiff’s challenge to the site plan approval, but was affirmed in all other respects.

 

 

 

Conditional rezoning agreement limits processing and retail sales to deer season

by Kaitlin Heinen and Gary Taylor

Patricia D. and Michael P. Fowler v. Muscatine County Board of Supervisors
(Iowa Court of Appeals, October 23, 2013)

Patricia and Michael Fowler asked the Muscatine County Zoning Commission to rezone their property from A-1 agricultural to C-1 commercial, to permit the operation of a seasonal deer processing facility and retail counter. The Fowlers executed an agreement that restricted the property’s use to “[o]nly wild game processing….[r]etail products in the wild game category…and supporting wild game products….” This agreement included a description of “Steve’s Meat Shop” and its products. Once executed, the commission recommended that the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors approve the zoning request, which the board did, passing an ordinance that rezoned the Fowlers’ property accordingly.

The Fowlers petitioned to have their property rezoned again to “add service of ready-to-eat food,” such as hot sandwiches. The commission recommended that the board deny this request; the board did so. The Fowlers sought to annul and vacate the board’s denial of their application in district court. The board resisted, and additionally argued that retail services could only be offered seasonally. The district court allowed the retail services to be conducted year-round, but denied the Fowlers’ request to include “ready-to-eat foods” or a “deli shop.” Both the Fowlers and the board appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The issues before the court in this case include: “(1) whether an ordinance that rezoned certain agricultural property to a commercial classification authorized the operation of a year-round retail establishment and (2) whether the retail establishment could sell ready-to-eat foods.”

The court initially observed that if an “ordinance is plain and its meaning is clear,” the court cannot search for meaning beyond those express terms. However, if the “ordinance is ambiguous, it is appropriate to apply the general rules of construction for statutes.” The board argued the “conditional rezoning agreement contains ‘no reference to year-round retail service,’” so the district court erred in the absence of such words to interpret. The Fowlers countered that the conditional rezoning agreement contains no time restrictions for the retail services, so the district court correctly concluded that they could operate year-round.

Both parties rely on the preamble of the ordinance—“the Property is…to be used as a seasonal deer processing and retail service.” The board argued “the term ‘seasonal’ ‘unambiguously and undeniably places limits on the privileges conferred by the spot zoning.’” The Fowlers countered the term “requires deer processing to occur on a seasonal basis but does not limit ‘retail service.’” The court reasoned that these competing arguments in regards to the term “seasonal” meant that there was ambiguity in the ordinance.

When confronted with an ambiguity, we may consider, among other factors: (1) the object sought to be attained (2) the circumstances under which the statute was enacted, (3) the legislative history, (4) the common law or former statutory provisions, (5) the consequences of a particular construction, (6) the administrative construction of the statute, and (7) the preamble or statement of policy.

The court examined the circumstances surrounding the ordinance’s passage. “At the first meeting with the zoning commission, Michael Fowler explained his reasoning for his rezoning request as follows: ‘[W]hat we’d like to do is to have a seasonal deer processing. We’d like to have a small retail counter that would just be open between October and January.’” Further, when asked whether the retail services would only be open during that period, he replied, “Yeah, deer season.” This resolves the ambiguity of the term “seasonal,” and thus the court concluded the Fowlers’ retail services were to operate seasonally. The court reversed the district court’s judgment in this part.

As for the second issue, the Fowlers argued the court erred in concluding they could not sell ready-to-eat foods at their retail counter. They contended that “retail service” encompasses the sale of ready-to-eat foods. However, the conditional rezoning agreement authorizes them to “prepare products for resale.” The court agreed with the district court that the conditional rezoning agreement did not authorize the sale of deli-style sandwiches that could not “be considered wild game specialty items.” In his statements to the zoning commission, “Michael Fowler stated that the retail store would be limited to wild game, ‘nothing domestic, like beef or pork.’” In addition, “Patricia Fowler explained that deer meat would be bought from a farmer and then sold to the customers.” These statements conclude that the retail service does not encompass ready-to-eat foods. The court affirmed the district court’s judgment in this part.

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