Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 10, 2010

Utah Supreme Court States Reasonably Debatable Standard Applies to Rezoning Decision, and There is No Protectable Property Interest in Alleged Representations by City that Application Would Be Approved

The Petersens, who own 20.84 acres of land in Riverton City, entered into a contract with a developer to sell the property contingent on the ability to rezone it. However, during the public hearing to consider the rezoning request, while the Planning Commission noted that the proposed change would be consistent with the City’s General Plan, local citizens raised several concerns including a belief that the change would constitute spot-zoning. As a result, the Commission recommended a denial of the application, and City Council ultimately denied the application. On appeal, the Petersens argued that there was no substantial evidence in the record to support the denial and that the Council violated their constitutional rights when the Council treated them as a “class of one,” differently from other similarly situated property owners in violation of their equal protection rights. In granting summary judgment for the City, the district court applied the reasonably debatable standard of review to the Council’s decision and held that it was not arbitrary, capricious, or illegal because there was a reasonable basis for it. The Supreme Court, on appeal looked at the Petersens argument that the district court should of applied the substantial evidence standard because the Council’s decision was quasi-judicial in nature. 

The Supreme Court of Utah found that the district court correctly applied the reasonably debatable standard because the Council’s decision to deny the rezoning request was legislative. The enactment and amendment of zoning ordinances is fundamentally a legislative act and courts will avoid substituting their judgment for that of the legislative body of the municipality. 

The court found no violation of equal protection rights because the Petersens failed to show any evidence of malice or bad faith by the Council, a necessary element in proving a violation of equal protection. The court found that the Petersens failed to show any evidence that the Council maliciously singled them out or based the denial on factors unrelated to the Council’s governmental duty. Rather, the Council had several reasonable bases upon which it denied the application including the negative public comments, the desire to maintain original zoning classification, and the fact that the property was surrounded on three sides by a certain zoning classification. 

The court further denied the due process claim because the Petersens could not show that they has a protectable property interest. The Petersens argued that their protectable property interest lies in the expectation-based on representations made by the City that their application would be granted, the court found that an abstract need for, or unilateral expectation of, a benefit does not constitute “property.” The court found that a property interest exists only where existing rules and understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law secure certain benefits and support claims of entitlement to those benefits. 

Petersen v. Riverton City, 2010 WL 3928500 (UT 10/8/2010)                                     

The opinion can be accessed at:

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