For residents in Michigan it is nearly impossible to go a day without being impacted, either directly or indirectly, by local municipal ordinances. This is especially true for zoning ordinances. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of just how significant these impacts can be until they are subjected to the enforcement actions of a municipality.
The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, MCL 125.3101 et seq. authorizes municipalities to adopt and enforce zoning ordinances. When it comes to enforcement, a zoning ordinance can become something more than just simply a mechanism for directing the use of land. In fact, a zoning ordinance can be enforced in the same manner as a criminal law in some situations. It may sound extreme, but a magistrate judge even has the authority to issue a warrant for the arrest of a person accused of violating an ordinance.
For most cases, however, the enforcement of a zoning ordinance begins with some kind of communication or a personal visit from local government officials (often called zoning enforcement officers or zoning administrators) who will either issue a notice of violation or a warning. From the zoning officer’s perspective, the objective is to see the violation cured. To that end, a property owner will often be given an opportunity to bring the land use, or structure, into compliance before the penalties for the violation will be enforced. When this opportunity to cure is provided, a hearing will be scheduled at some point in the future, during which the zoning official will make a determination as to whether a violation exists. If the zoning official ultimately decides that a person has violated a zoning ordinance, the person can either comply with penalties imposed or appeal the decision to zoning board of appeals – where such an appeal is provided for in the ordinance. If the zoning board of appeals affirms the zoning violation, the person may then appeal that decision in the circuit court.
As for the penalties themselves, these too can mirror criminal statutes. In particular, a violation of a zoning ordinance can be prosecuted in court as either a civil infraction or misdemeanor. The violation can also be pursued as a nuisance per se in the circuit court, with the result often constituting some form of injunctive relief.
One of the most significant aspects of zoning enforcement, however, is the ability of a municipality to obtain a lien against the property for the fine charged as a result of the violation. This lien can be enforced by a municipality in the manner permitted by its own local law or by the general property tax act – i.e., through foreclosure. The failure to pay an ordinance violation fine assessed by a court can also result in the property owner’s (or occupant’s) imprisonment (for civil contempt) for up to one day for each $30 of the unpaid fine that is due. Further complicating matters is the fact that most ordinances expressly state that each day a violation exists shall constitute a separate offense. The result of such language is that these fines can quickly compound and become quite burdensome.
Accordingly, if you have been issued a notice of zoning violation or warning, it is important to seek legal counsel. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have successfully represented individuals and businesses faced with zoning violations in municipalities across the nation. Contact us today, we would happy to speak with you about your situation and options to protect your rights.