Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 24, 2013

Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Denial of Rezoning for Affordable Housing Project Finding Board’s Decision Had a Rational Basis

Roundstone Development, LLC (“Roundstone”), sought to develop an affordable-housing subdivision in the City of Natchez. The land pegged for the site had two different zoning classifications: O–L (Open–Land) and R–1 (Single–Family Residential). The Planning Commission denied the plan after finding that the O-L area must be rezoned R-1 before the plan could be approved. After this, the Mayor and Board of Alderman denied Roundstone’s rezoning request. Both the lower court and appellate court upheld the decision, and subsequently Roundstone appealed to the Supreme Court of Mississippi. The court affirmed, holding that the City did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in denying the request.

Roundstone had sought to develop a subdivision consisting of approximately sixty-five single-family homes. It claims that prior to purchasing the site, it relied on three letters from the Director of Planning and Zoning, the Planning Director, and the Land Use Planner, all stating that the area was zoned R-1 and the use of the property for single-family development was permitted. Unfortunately for Roundstone, all three letters were incorrect about the land’s actual zoning status. The Planning Commission refused to approve the site plan application, and later denied a subsequent application seeking to rezone the property. Roundstone appeals the decisions to the Mayor and Board of Alderman, which voted unanimously to affirm the Commission’s decision. Roundstone appealed to the Circuit Court which affirmed the decision as well, finding that the decision was “supported by substantial evidence and was neither arbitrary nor capricious.” The Court of Appeals upheld the decision as well, and this appeal followed.

The City interpreted section IV(1) of its Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations as requiring O-L district to be reclassified before being subdivided into urban building sites for single-family homes, and rejected Roundstone’s site plan because it did not comply with this ordinance. The court had to decide whether the City’s interpretation of its zoning ordinance to require rezoning from O-L to R-1 was not manifestly unreasonable. The statute at issue provides, in pertinent part:

The regulations are designed to protect the essentially open character of the districts by prohibiting the establishment of scattered uses that are unrelated to any general plan of development and that might inhibit the best future urban utilization of the land. It is intended that land in these districts will be reclassified to its appropriate residential, commercial, and industrial category in accordance with the amendment procedure set forth herein whenever such land is subdivided into urban building sites.

A number of interpretations support that of the City’s. First, reclassification of the area prior to development would “protect the essentially open character of the districts by prohibiting the establishment of scattered uses that are unrelated to any general plan of development and that might inhibit the best future urban utilization of the land.” Further, the last sentence explicitly states that reclassification is intended. In addition, the phrase “whenever such land is subdivided” could mean that reclassification should occur prior to any subdivision. For these reasons the court did not find any reason to believe the City’s interpretation of section IV was unreasonable. Therefore, the City’s decision to deny the site plan and require rezoning was not improper.

The next issue the court had to tackle was whether the decision to deny the rezoning request was arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, illegal, or without substantial basis. To reclassify property, the party seeking reclassification must show, by clear and convincing evidence, either “that (1) a mistake in the original zoning occurred; or (2) a change in the character of the neighborhood occurred that justified rezoning, and a public need existed for the rezoning.” The court ruled out a mistake in the original zoning, and proceeded to determine the more specific issue of “whether the character of the neighborhood had changed to such an extent as to justify reclassification from O–L to R–1, and whether a public need for rezoning existed.”

The court supported the City’s reliance concerns over traffic congestion reasons and the potential negative impacts the rental properties would have on the use and enjoyment of surrounding properties. The court was unconvinced by Roundstone’s allegation that racial or class animus played a role in the Board’s decision, in part because the Board used its common knowledge and familiarity with its municipality in reaching its decision, and also because Roundstone provided no proof that the decision was discriminatory or otherwise motivated by class, race, or other animus. For these reasons the court found the decision was not arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, illegal, or without a substantial basis. Therefore the decisions of the lower courts were affirmed.

Roundstone v. Natchez, No. 2010-CT-00274-SCT. (MISS 1/18/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=8328444813561872010&hl=en&as_sdt=2,33

 


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