Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 3, 2010

TN Appeals Court Rules that Side Bar Conversations by City Officials do not Estopp City Council from Refusing to Take Action

The plaintiff, Stoneybrook Golf Course, filed suit against the defendant, City of Columbia, for their refusal to take prompt action on their application in accord with verbal commitments by city officials.  The trial court dismissed the complaint on the proceedings, and the Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed.

Plaintiff, before purchasing land, sought approval from the Mayor and other officials of the City and received verbal assurances that they would support the plaintiff’s efforts to have the land annexed into the defendant City and have it rezoned so as to permit the building of condominiums.  The council then refused to go forward with the annexation and rezoning until a comprehensive land plan was completed, against the repeated recommendations of the planning commission to just pass a “general” plan.

The plaintiff alleged in the trial court proceedings that the City should not have used the “purposed absence of a general plan as [a condition] to the approval of the [re-zoning and annexation] petitions was nothing more than a baseless hurdle…,” that there was general and comprehensive plans that could be used, that the council lacked authority to deny the planning commission’s general plan, that the council’s actions amounted to an unlawful indefinite moratorium, and that the defendant is estopped to refuse the petitions.  The trial court, addressing the plaintiff’s motions, issued a declaratory judgment that adequate plans existed to process the petition, but refused to order the defendant to consider the plaintiff’s petitions.  The trial court then granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, as the court found no authority that mandates the defendant to expediently process the plaintiff’s petitions. 

After the trial court’s judgment, and before the present judicial proceeding, the defendant adopted a comprehensive plan. 

The plaintiff then requested the Court of Appeals to determine if the defendant’s motion to dismiss was properly granted, and the defendant asked the court to dismiss the appeal as moot.  The court first addressed the defendant’s claim that the case was moot, stating that the adoption of the comprehensive plan does not render the case moot as the court can still compel the defendant to consider the petitions.  

The court noted that the “thrust” of the plaintiff’s claim is that the defendant must use the applicable plans at the time of application when determining whether to grant the petitions, and that the plaintiff’s property rights were violated when the defendant did not consider the petitions until a comprehensive plan was available.  The court held that the defendant’s actions did not violate any rights of the plaintiff, as the defendant’s actions were necessary to preserve the integrity of the up-and-coming comprehensive plan.  The Court further noted that the decisions of the defendant council were made in open meetings, thus all parties were on notice and had an opportunity to represent themselves.

The court then addressed the plaintiff’s argument of estoppel.  The court noted that Tennessee does not liberally apply the doctrine of promissory estoppel, that government entities are not treated the same as private entities under equitable estoppel, and that it takes “‘very exceptional circumstances’ to invoke the doctrine of estoppel against a municipality.”  Given this heightened standard, the court determined the facts alleged did not support a claim of estoppel.  The problem with the estoppel claim was that the plaintiff was trying to use private meetings with public officials to make the defendant do something which requires public meetings and action by the City Council.

Briefly, the court addressed the plaintiff’s claim that the council had no authority to take action with regard to the general or comprehensive plans, as that is vested in the planning commission.  The court stated the planning commission only has the authority to recommend matters concerning zoning, and the authority to adopt zoning matters is vested in the City Council.  Further, the court held that since the City Council had the prerogative to adopt zoning matters, they were not estopped due to the side bar conversations.

Stoneybrook Golf Course, LLC v. City of Columbia, 2010 Tenn. App. LEXIS 473 (Tenn. Ct. App. 7/26/2010)

The opinion can be accessed at:  http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/OPINIONS/TCA/PDF/103/Stoneybrook%20Golf%20Course%20LLC%20v%20City%20of%20Columbia%20OPN.pdf


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