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Can I Challenge a Rezoning Denial in Court?

In representing individuals and businesses in Michigan land use issues, we have handled many rezoning requests. A rezoning on its own is usually a fairly straightforward issue. But sometimes we are contacted after a rezoning request has been denied. The question is asked – can I sue for a denial of my rezoning request? A recent Sixth Circuit case highlights the answer. While reversing a rezoning denial in court is difficult, it is possible.

In Andrews v. City of Mentor, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered an appeal of the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the City for a rezoning denial. The plaintiff sued the City alleging violations of the Takings Clause, the Equal Protection Clause (on theories of fundamental rights and “class of one”), and the Due Process Clause (substantive due process).

The district court granted the City’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. In doing so, the district court held plaintiff lacked a property interest in its land as rezoned because rezoning is a “discretionary benefit.” Therefore, the takings claim was dismissed. Further, the district court dismissed plaintiff’s class of one equal protection claim because plaintiff failed “to negate potential explanations for the City’s decision” to deny the Trust’s application for rezoning while granting a similar request associated with another development.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of both the takings claim and the equal protection claim. As to the takings claim, the plaintiff argued that the only property interest needed to make the claim was the ownership of the underlying land. The City argued that the district court was correct to dismiss the claim since rezoning was discretionary. The court disagreed with both parties.

The court found that the discretionary nature of the rezoning request did not bar plaintiff’s takings claim. However, the court also declined to find that mere ownership of the land was a sufficient property interest to claim a taking based on the rezoning denial. Instead, the court held that the question was more complex and required “a searching inquiry into ‘background principles of the State’s law of property and nuisance already place[d] on land ownership,’ and ‘objective factors, such as the nature of the land use proscribed,’ to determine whether the plaintiff actually held the property interest that they claim to have been taken.” The court remanded the question back to the district court.

As to the equal protection class of one claim, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court’s dismissal was incorrect because it failed to identify the potential explanations that may have justified the City’s disparate treatment of the plaintiff’s property and a similar development. The court stated: “It cannot be that the [plaintiff] must concoct and rebut a potentially valid rationale for the City’s action in order to survive the pleadings stage where the City itself has failed to do so; otherwise, the [plaintiff’s] complaint would fail to state a claim even if it proves to be one of those few-and-far-between cases where the defendant’s conduct truly lacks a rational basis. Thus, the court remanded the equal protection claim back to the district court.

It is worth noting that Sixth Circuit’s opinion only allowed the lawsuit to move forward. It was not a final victory for the plaintiff. However, the opinion is helpful in explaining what is sufficient in bringing a lawsuit challenging a rezoning denial. In other words, while these claims may be difficult to win, they remain viable.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience with land use issues such as rezoning requests. We represent individuals and corporate entities. If you have a zoning issue, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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