Existing landscaping insufficient to meet ordinance buffer standards

by Hannah Dankbar

Schall v City of Williamston
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 4, 2014

William and Melanie Schall brought suit to compel their neighbors, D&G Equipment, Inc., owned by Elden and Jolene Gustafson to comply with the City of Williamston’s zoning ordinance that requires a special use permit to allow outdoor display of farm implements for sale.  The ordinance also requires a landscaped buffer zone to shield plaintiffs’ property from the sales display. The Schalls sought a writ of mandamus to compel the city and its contract zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance. The trial court found that the Gustafson’s use of their property violated the city’s zoning ordinance and ordered for the zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance.

As an initial matter the Court of Appeals affirmed that the Schalls had standing to bring the suit.  As abutting neighbors, the Schells “have a real interest in the subject matter of the controversy.  Nothing in state law indicates that private parties are limited in their ability to ask the court to abate a nuisance arising out of the violation of a zoning ordinance.

The requirements for a landscape buffer are defined in § 74-7.101 as “a minimum 15 feet wide” and “a staggered double row of closely spaced evergreens (i.e., no farther than 15 feet apart) which can be reasonably expected to form a complete visual barrier at least six feet in height within three years of installation.” The planning commission can only modify this requirement with “a written request identifying the relevant landscape standard, the proposed landscaping, how the proposed landscaping deviates from the landscaping standard, and why the modification is justified.”

In the present case, there was no “written request” to modify the ordinance standards. Even assuming that the site plan and the zoning administrator’s written and oral submissions to the planning commission were sufficient to meet this standard, and that the modified landscape included utilizing existing vegetation as part of the buffer, it must “achieve the same effect as the required landscaping.” The minimum standards of the ordinance apply except if the standard is reached with existing vegetation.

At the time of the lawsuit the buffer did not meet the standard, but the question became whether the buffer will meet the standard in three years. Based on its review of the expert testimony the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the landscaping could not meet the standards of the ordinance and, therefore, that the Gustafsons were in violation of the zoning ordinance.

The zoning ordinance is clear and unambiguous and the trial court did not err in granting  summary disposition by finding no material disputed fact that defendants’ buffer failed to comply with the zoning ordinance and therefore was an abatable nuisance per se.

 

Decision to approve expansion of nonconforming use supported by evidence; nearby property owner lacked standing to challenge

by Kaitlin Heinen

Daniel E. Stuckman, Sr. & Jr. v. Kosciusko County Board of Zoning Appeals
(Indiana Court of Appeals, September 25, 2012)

Ned and Bertha Stuckman purchased Lots A through K of the Lake Papakeechie Subdivision Number 2 in the 1950’s, and opened an automobile salvage yard on Lots E through K. In 1975, a Kosciusko County Zoning Ordinance took effect, and Ned and Bertha’s land was zoned residential; however, the automobile salvage yard constituted a lawful, nonconforming use so Ned and Bertha continued its operation. In the early 1980’s, Ned and Bertha cleared brush from Lots A through D and began stacking vehicles in that area. The Board investigated complaints by area residents, and the Indiana Court of Appeals eventually concluded that Ned, Bertha, and Gary (their son) had unlawfully expanded the automobile salvage yard to Lots A through D and ordered them to cease all salvage yard operations until they complied with certain restrictions.

In February 1988, Ned, Bertha, Gary, the Papakeechie Protective Association, and the Board of Zoning Appeals entered into a written Agreement, which provided that Papakeechie would join with Ned, Bertha, and Gary to file an application for an exception for modification of a preexisting, nonconforming use on Lots A through G. The Agreement placed restrictions, limitations, and covenants on the use of the property. For example, Ned, Bertha, and Gary agreed to construct a buffer mound near the edge of Koher Road. Ned, Bertha, and Gary also agreed to plant pine trees on the buffer mound to provide additional screening. All salvage yard activities were to be conducted to the east or north of the buffer mound, and vehicles were to be stacked so as not to be visible from Koher Road. In addition, Ned, Bertha, and Gary agreed to not install a sign indicating the existence of a salvage yard, except as necessary to meet state requirements. Following this Agreement, Gary filed the request for an exception for modification of a preexisting, nonconforming use, which was approved by the BZA. After Ned and Bertha died, Gary inherited Lots A through G, and his brother, Daniel Sr., inherited Lots H through K. Gary continued to operate the salvage yard on his lots, and Daniel Sr. operated Stuckman Sanitation on his lots, and with his son Daniel Jr., he also owned and operated Northern Indiana Recycling, LLC and Stuckman & Son Trucking on these lots as well. In 2008, Daniel Sr. filed a request for an exception for modification of a preexisting, nonconforming use, seeking approval for the construction of three new buildings, the installation of a scale, and the relocation of driving areas on his lots. The BZA approved these modifications.

In January 2010, Gary filed a request for an exception to expand the salvage yard as a nonconforming use. The BZA held a hearing in February 2010, where Gary submitted plans of his proposed changes, which included the removal of several mobile homes along the highway, the relocation of the buffer mound, the installation of a new location sign, and the construction of three new buildings to move the operations indoors to control the noise and dust. Following the hearing, the BZA unanimously approved the modification of the nonconforming use. In March 2010, the Daniel Stuckmans filed a petition for Writ of Certiorari, seeking judicial review of the BZA’s decision. They alleged that their businesses would be damaged by the approval of Gary’s plan. Gary died during the proceedings, so his estate was substituted as a party in March 2011. The trial court held a hearing in July 2011, where the Stuckmans argued that the BZA did not apply the appropriate section of the zoning ordinance. Zoning Ordinance Section 5.5 gives the BZA power to authorize changes of lawful nonconforming uses. However, the BZA  reviewed a checklist from Section 5.4 of the zoning ordinance, which applies to exceptions. In September 2011, the trial court concluded that Daniel Jr. lacked standing to contest the BZA’s decision because he was not an adjacent property owner and that the BZA’s decision required additional findings of fact, so it remanded the case to the BZA . In December 2011, the BZA found that the modification of the preexisting, nonconforming use complied with the Agreement and Section 5.5 of the Zoning Ordinance. The BZA also found no evidence that the proposed changes would adversely affect the neighborhood properties. Rather, the BZA noted that Gary’s changes would constitute a significant improvement to the neighborhood and be of benefit to adjoining neighbors, so his application for modification was approved. The trial court confirmed the BZA’s findings and conclusions, so Daniel Sr. and Jr. appealed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Daniel Jr. did not have standing to contest the BZA’s decision. With regard to the challenge by Daniel Jr., the court stated that he does not own property adjacent to Gary’s, and he presented no evidence at the hearing to indicate an adverse effect on his property.

The court also affirmed that the BZA did not err in granting Gary’s request for an exception to modify and change the preexisting, nonconforming use of his property. The court determined that the error committed by the BZA in applying the wrong section of the zoning ordinance was remedied when the case was remanded by the trial court to the BZA for further findings of fact to support their decision. On remand, the BZA explained that although it had inadvertently used a checklist for an exception, Gary’s petition was clearly to modify a preexisting, nonconforming use and at no time were board members confused. The BZA further found that pursuant to Section 5.5 of the Ordinance, there was no evidence presented, which indicated that the proposed modifications would adversely affect the neighborhood properties. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that these findings were supported by substantial evidence.

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