Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 19, 2022

MS Supreme Court Reverses City’s Interpretation of the Phrase “Main Building Area” Permitting Accessory Buildings Up to 50% of the Home’s Square Footage

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

The City of Gautier granted David Vindich a permit to build a 1,410 square foot garage/workshop on his .76-acre lot. When the building was almost completed, Vindich’s neighbor, Martin Wheelan, filed a lawsuit in the Jackson County Chancery Court, arguing the City’s decision was unlawful since Vindich actually sought a variance, which required a public hearing rather than a building permit. After a trial, the chancellor dismissed Wheelan’s claims, finding that the City’s interpretation of the applicable ordinance was not manifestly unreasonable. The chancellor further found that the building was not a nuisance. Wheelan appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The record reflected that the Planning Commission agreed that the Unified Development Ordinance was not clear but nevertheless voted four to three to reverse the Building Department’s decision and allow Vindich to build the workshop. The Building Department advocated for its interpretation that all accessory buildings combined together could not exceed 50 percent of the home’s square footage. In another vote, the City Council accepted the Planning Commission’s decision to allow Vindich to build the 1,400 square foot workshop. The City’s exact interpretation of the Unified Development Ordinance was absent from the record; however, the City presented in its brief that it interpreted the phrase “main building area” to mean the entire lot.

The court noted that the flaw in the City’s interpretation of Section 5.4.4.F led to absurd results and rendered parts of the ordinance meaningless. Specifically, while the City’s interpretation of “main building area” would permit the homeowner to build accessory structures covering up to fifty percent of the “entire lot,” the immediately preceding sentence of the ordinance limited the principal structure and all accessory structures combined to only twenty-five percent of the lot area. Since the twenty-five percent of the lot is always less than fifty percent of the lot, the twenty-five-percent limitation in the first sentence would always control, and the City’s interpretation of the fifty-percent limitation would never apply. Accordingly, the City’s interpretation of the phrase “main building area” renders that very phrase a nullity.

As the court held that the City’s interpretation of Section 5.4.4.F of its UDO was manifestly unreasonable, it reversed the judgment of the chancery court with instructions to vacate the City Council’s order granting the building permit.

Wheelan v Coty of Gautier, 2022 WL 325207 (MS 2/3/2022)


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