Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 5, 2015

Fed. Dist. Court in Alabama Addresses Procedural Issues in Challenge to Chicken Farm as Nonconforming Use

On April 23, 2001, the City Council of Rainsville, Alabama amended its zoning ordinance to change chicken farming in the agricultural zone from a permitted use to a prohibited use subject to a Special Exception procedure, which, if Special Exception status is granted to applicants, allows the chicken farm to exist with certain limitations and safeguards.  When the City Council of Rainsville passed Ordinance 19-01-B, Harold and Kathy Owens owned and operated a cattle and poultry farm on private property in Rainsville’s agricultural district, which included five poultry houses, each of which exceeded the value of $100,000.  After the passage of the 2001 amendment to the ordinance, the Owens continued operation of the cattle and poultry farm as a non-conforming use. In June of 2005, Plaintiffs Cody and Hope Etherton purchased the Owens property on Kain Avenue, including all title, covenants, and rights to the use and possession of the property. After being unable to sell their property, because their purchasers would need to go through the Special Exception process and get approval for the subsequent purchasers to continue to operate the property as a chicken farm, the Ethertons filed this lawsuit suing the City of Rainsville as well as other individual City officials.

The court first discussed the Ethertons’ claims that applied to multiple counts, starting with their official capacity claims. Here, since the Ethertons sued the government entity involved, the City of Rainsville, the court dismissed these claims as redundant and unnecessary. Next, the court dismissed the 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and § 1982 claims because the Ethertons had not stated a claim for discrimination on the basis of race. Moreover, because these claims were devoid of racial or otherwise class-based invidiously discriminatory animus, the conspiracy claim under § 1985 and “neglect to prevent” claim were also dismissed. The Ethertons also argued that the doctrine of laches precluded the City from applying the ordinance to their chicken farm, since they purchased the chicken farm nine years ago and operated it during the interim period without the City’s objection or requirement that they go through the Special Exception process. However, the court held that the doctrine of laches was meant to be a shield, rather than a sword as the Plaintiffs attempted to do here. The court also dismissed the Ethertons’ assertion that § 5-2-2 of Rainsville’s Zoning Ordinance as amended was facially unconstitutional because they lacked standing.

In their remaining federal constitutional claims, the Ethertons first asserted that Zoning Ordinance § 3-19-01-B violated the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution by interfering with the contract between the Ethertons and Dale and Sherrie Jones regarding purchasing the Ethertons’ property. The court noted, however, that a regulation or ordinance does not violate the Contract Clause as long as it serves a “significant and legitimate public purpose,” and is based upon reasonable conditions and is of a character appropriate to the public purpose justifying the legislation’s adoption. Since the Ethertons failed to make any showing of this, their Contract Clause claim was dismissed. The court likewise rejected the Ethertons’ Equal Protection claim as unripe, since at the time the Ethertons filed suit, they still had possession of the property, and the City had not issued a final decision preventing the Ethertons from operating the chicken farm themselves. The Ethertons’ just compensation, due process, and takings claims likewise could not successfully overcome the final decision hurdle because they had not applied for a Special Exception to the chicken farm zoning prohibition, and thus, had not pursued available state procedures as required to establish ripeness of their zoning claim.

Finally, the court found that, based on the allegations of the Amended Complaint, each of the individual Defendants was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the act(s) occurred that allegedly violated federal statutory and federal constitutional law. Accordingly, as another alternative ruling applied to the individual Defendants, the court held that qualified immunity applied. Because the court dismissed all of the Ethertons’ federal claims, it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over their state claims.

Etherton v City of Rainsville, 2015 WL 6123213 (ND Ala 10/19/2015)

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