Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 11, 2012

Tennessee Appeals Court Finds No Illegal Spot Zoning in Rezoning Action

In this action, the plaintiff challenged a rezoning ordinance on the basis that it was illegal spot zoning and was improperly classified in violation of the local ordinance.  The trial court upheld the re-zoning, finding it was in the furtherance of public safety goals and was reasonable and rational.  The Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed.

A land owner applied to the Metro Planning Commission to have a small portion of his property re-zoned from agricultural-forestry to general commercial in order to operate a roadside assistance and towing operation.  After a public hearing in which no one opposed the application, the Metro Council voted on and approved the rezone.  Following the rezone, the land owner began operation of his business, to the displeasure of nearby residents who claimed the business ruined the area, as it was unsightly and noisy.  The trial court did not overturn the rezone; however, it did imposed conditions on the operation of the business so as to lessen its adverse impacts.

In reviewing the rezone ordinance, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee began by stating that the Tennessee Code permits municipalities to enact zoning ordinances that have the purpose of promoting, among other things, the public safety of the community.  Additionally, the court provided that in enacting ordinances, local governments are acting in a legislative capacity, and thus review is limited to whether there is a rational or justifiable basis for its enactment, and whether there was a violation of state or constitutional law.  The local act will stand unless it is found to be arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, and not related to the public health, safety, or welfare. 

Analyzing the plaintiff’s claim, the court provided that spot zoning occurs where the government illegally singles out a small portion of land and classifies it differently from the surrounding properties, for the sole benefit of the subject land owner and to the detriment of the surrounding owners.  The court then proceeded to look to the minutes from municipal hearings, which illustrated that the rezone of the property and subsequent operation of the business were for the purpose of benefitting the public.  The business was created mainly to tow and store county and highway patrol vehicles.  This would benefit the community as these vehicles and their occupants would usually have to wait hours for tow trucks to arrive, thereby wasting municipal resources and time.  Also, given the agricultural area in which this business and zone were located, the general public was benefitted as residents likewise had to wait hours on the side of the road for assistance from out of county tow trucks. Given this public safety purpose and the need for such services, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed the ruling of the trial court that the rezone was not an act of illegal spot zoning.

The court then addressed the plaintiff’s claim that the business classification given to the towing and roadside assistance business was improper, and that its proper classification would not be permitted in the general commercial zone district.  The court found the classification used by the municipality was appropriate and that the classification was permitted in the general commercial zone district.  The court affirmed on this ground as well.

Fielding v. Metropolitan government of Lynchburg, 2012 WL 327908 (Ct. App. Tenn. 1/31/2012)

The opinion can be accessed at:


  1. Possible Illegal Contract Zoning Claim

    The Tennessee Court of Appeals probably would have reached the same result if the Plaintiff’s had put forward an illegal contract zoning claim against the Metropolitan Government of Lynchburg, Moore, County, Tennessee given the courts deference to local zoning authorities: “local authorities are vested with broad discretion” in zoning matters and “where the validity of a zoning ordinance is fairly debatable, the court cannot substitute its judgment.”
    However, the following is a possible argument that the Plaintiffs could have put forward on an illegal contract claim:
    Looking to Chrismon v. Guilford County (322 N.C. 611, 1988) for support, the Plaintiffs could have argued that the Ambrose Rezoning Ordinance in the instant case connoted a transaction wherein both Vincent Ambrose Jr. and the Metro Planning Commission undertook reciprocal obligations in the context of a bilateral contract. Here, the Plaintiffs would argue that there was an abandonment on the part of the zoning authority of its duty to exercise independent judgment in making zoning decisions.
    The Plaintiffs could have pointed to the specific business that the tract of land was re-zoned for and the reasoning behind the Commissions’ approval as support for the existence of a bilateral contract between Ambrose and the Metro Government. In approving the initial re-zoning application, the Commission noted that “he will mainly tow for our county and highway patrol. This will help our county deputies because many times they are tied up for hours waiting on a tow truck.” After receiving the approval, Ambrose allowed the Metro Fire Department to use his property to conduct “jaws of life” training for emergency workers, and did presentations on vehicle safety for local high schools. These statements on the record, and the business practices after re-zoning, create an inference to the conclusion that the Commission was envisioning what it would get in return for re-zoning the property for Ambrose.
    The Plaintiffs would argue that the specific reason behind the approval of the re-zoning was that the governmental agencies of Metropolitan Government itself would be receiving significant reciprocal benefits. The Metro Fire Department gained a property for training of emergency workers, the Sheriff’s Department and the Highway Patrol gained a property that would store vehicles for them until the insurance companies came to pick them up. These business practices were known by the Commission through the application and direct testimony from Ambrose himself, who is also the only employee of the business. By re-zoning the property for a business that worked specifically for Moore County Sheriff’s Department, the Highway Patrol, the Fire Department, and Emergency Medical units, Metropolitan Government of Lynchburg was receiving a significant reciprocal benefit in exchange for re-zoning the propoerty. The re-zoning was a bilateral contract and therefore illegal contract zoning.

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