Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 28, 2016

AL Supreme Court Holds Res Judicata Precluded Relitigation of Zoning Ordinance Interpretation

Richard E. Chesnut and Betty B. Chesnut appealed from the Court of Civil Appeals, which affirmed two separate judgments of the Madison Circuit Court that were entered against them in connection with their challenge of building permits issued for the construction of a house next door to the Chesnuts’ house. In case no. 2140043, the Chesnuts appealed from the trial court’s March 14, 2014, summary judgment in favor of the City and builders, which arose out of the Chesnuts’ complaint alleging that the City did not comply with its zoning ordinance when it issued building permits to the builders who they said were violating the front-yard setback lines. The Chesnuts alleged that they did not have to exhaust their administrative remedies before seeking relief in the trial court. Ultimately, however, the trial court in case no. 2140043 ruled on the merits of the Chesnuts’ claim regarding the zoning-enforcement coordinator’s interpretation of the zoning ordinance involving the front-yard setback line.

In case no. 2140042, the Chesnuts appealed from a summary judgment entered by the Madison Circuit Court in favor of the BZA arising out of an administrative appeal filed by the Chesnuts. The Chesnuts filed an administrative appeal with the BZA on July 31, 2013, which involved the same facts and issues raised in their complaint filed on June 3, 2013. The BZA determined that the Chesnuts’ administrative appeal was untimely and ruled against the Chesnuts, and the Chesnuts appealed to circuit court. On appeal, this court found that when the trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the City and the builders on March 14, 2014, the Chesnuts’ appeal of the BZA’s decision in their administrative appeal was resolved. In other words, the summary judgment in the civil action was a final judgment for res judicata purposes: the pending appeal of the summary judgment in the civil action did not affect the finality of the judgment that the building permits were issued in violation of the City’s zoning ordinances.

As to the setback issue, the court found that the zoning-enforcement coordinator took the term “developed” in Article 73.7.4 out of context. The use of a particularized dictionary for urban planning to define the term “developed” was erroneous in light of the purpose of the enabling act delegating to municipalities legislative authority to enact zoning ordinances with the general purpose of considering “the character of the district and their peculiar suitability for particular uses and with a view to conserving the value of buildings”; the zoning scheme adopted by the City; and the language used in Article 73.7.4. Here, the zoning-enforcement coordinator’s interpretation allowed the house in question to be built approximately 20 feet closer to the street than other existing houses on the street. The court therefore determined that deference given an administrative agency’s interpretation of its own rule or regulation was not boundless, and did not apply to this case. Accordingly, it held that the trial court erred in entering a summary judgment in favor the builders and the City. The judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals in case no. 2140043 was therefore reversed because the zoning-enforcement coordinator’s interpretation of the zoning ordinance was unreasonable. The court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals in case no. 2140042 because the Chesnuts’ administrative appeal was barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

Ex parte Chesnut, 2016 WL 280753 (AL 1/22/2016)


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