Ordinance prohibiting lot splits found constitutional

by Victoria Heldt

Richard W. Guse and Clara Guse v. City of New Berlin and Common Council of the City of New Berlin
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, January 18, 2012)

The Guses own a lot in the Hillcrest Terrace Subdivision in the City of New Berlin.  They wanted to divide their existing lot into two lots, with each measuring approximately 29,000 square feet with a width of 147 feet.  The average lot within the subdivision contained approximately 41,000 square feet and measured 181 feet wide.  Both the New Berlin Plan Commission and the New Berlin Common Council denied the Guses’ request based on NBMC §235-23(G).  This ordinance allows the City to prohibit new lots that are smaller than or not as wide as existing lots in the subdivision.  It also allows the city to prohibit the formation of new lots in a subdivision that is more than 25 years old.  The Guses appealed the decision to the district court, arguing that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and that the Council’s denial of their request was arbitrary, unreasonable, and discriminatory.  The court agreed and reversed the Council’s decision, ruling in favor of the Guses.  The City appealed.

The Court looked first to the constitutionality of NBMC §235-26(G).  An ordinance is unconstitutionally vague if “it fails to afford proper notice of the conduct it seeks to proscribe or if encourages arbitrary and erratic enforcement.”   The Guses argued it was vague because it did not set forth adequate standards for the City to consider when deciding whether to allow such a lot split.  The Court looked to previous judicial decisions regarding vague statutes and ordinances.  In the case of Humble Oil, the Court struck down an ordinance that allowed a city to prohibit gas filling stations.  In the ordinance in that case, the only factors that were to be considered when deciding on a permit were public health, safety, convenience, prosperity, or general welfare.  The Court deemed those standards to be too vague and concluded there should be some standards to guide the municipality’s actions.

Next the Court looked to cases in which it upheld statutes and ordinances.  In Wadhams Oil Co. v. Delavan the Court upheld an ordinance allowing the city to prohibit a gas station to be placed within 165 of the main street of a city.  In Smith v. Brookfield, the Court upheld an ordinance that required the submission of location and a plan of operation before a board would allow certain types of businesses.  It also contained language in the preamble that required consideration of general welfare objectives.  After analyzing those cases, the Court concluded that “ordinances may vest boards with some (and even significant) discretion without being unconstitutionally vague.”  Turning to the ordinance in question, the Court determined that the New Berlin Municipal Code clearly outlines three considerations for the court to consider when contemplating the issuance of a permit, so it is not unconstitutionally vague.

The Guses further argued that the Council’s decision to deny the request was arbitrary because the lot in question is relatively large compared to those around it, and that the denial was unreasonable because it “lacked a health, safety, or general welfare basis.”  The Court noted that the existence of differences in decisions is not necessarily indicative of arbitrariness.  In making the decision, the Council considered the criteria of the statute and citizen’s opposition to the division, so there was clearly a rational basis for the decision.

The Guses finally argued that the decision was discriminatory because the Council previously approved lot divisions that created lots smaller than the average lot size within the subdivision.  The Court found this claim to be unsupported by the record.  The Guses presented evidence of previous lot divisions, but no evidence of how those lots compared in size to surrounding lots.  The Court reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling in favor of the City.

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