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Can a Municipality Waive Its Right to Enforce a Zoning Ordinance?

Sometimes, property owners will be aware that their use of a property is not compliant with local ordinances. But not all municipalities enforce their ordinances in the same time or in the same manner. If enforcement does not occur right away, some property owners may understandably rely on the non-enforcement when making future decisions. In Champion Township v Pascoe, the court of appeals ruled on a case where the township waited years to enforce its ordinances against a property owner.

In Champion Township, the property at issue was zoned for residential use. The local school district previously operated a school on the property pursuant to a lease.  In 1984, the former owner obtained a permit for a nonconforming use that allowed the school to remain.  The approved nonconforming use also extended to the structure of the school building and a bus garage on the property.  Defendants purchased the property in 1995.  In 2013, they leased some or all of the property for operation of an excavating company.  In the fall of 2016, the Zoning Administrator issued notices of zoning violations to defendants for operating a commercial business in a residential area.

The Township filed a complaint in the circuit court in July 2017, requesting injunctive relief. Defendants admitted they operated an excavating company on the property but maintained this was consistent with the prior nonconforming use allowed by the 1984 permit. Plaintiff responded that defendants’ use of the property improperly extended and enlarged the prior nonconforming use. The circuit court eventually granted summary disposition in favor of the Township and Defendants appealed.

On appeal, Defendants argued the Township should be prevented from enforcing the zoning ordinances due to equitable estoppel and laches. Equitable estoppel may arise where (1) a party, by representations, admissions, or silence intentionally or negligently induces another party to believe facts, (2) the other party justifiably relies and acts on that belief, and (3) the other party is prejudiced if the first party is allowed to deny the existence of those facts. Laches is defined as “the failure to do something which should be done under the circumstances or the failure to claim or enforce a right at a proper time.”

Defendants argued that various Township officials led them to believe that they could continue their activities on the property without issue. Defendants also argued that the enforcement actions arose out of personal animosity towards them from Township officials.

In affirming summary disposition in favor of the Township, the court of appeals reasoned that to the extent Defendants acted in reliance on informal assurances from earlier municipal authorities, or once-friendly relations with the new enforcement officers, Defendants ran the risk that those authorities might in time pursue stricter enforcement of the zoning ordinance. Further, the court did not find it convincing that Defendants would have relied on prior inaction by Township officials when beginning the excavating business.

The takeaway from this case is that municipalities will generally have the authority to enforce their zoning ordinances even if they previously have failed to do so. Any tacit approvals from inaction will be difficult to rely upon in a court setting. While not impossible, arguing estoppel as a defense from zoning enforcement remains a difficult proposition in Michigan.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich represent property owners against improper zoning enforcement. If you believe your property rights are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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