September 30, 2008

Court review of zoning ordinance limited to whether decision has a rational or justifiable basis; Compliance with land use plan not legally required

DENNIS B. GANN, ET AL. v. THE CITY OF CHATTANOOGA, ET AL (Tenn.Ct.App. September 30, 2008).

The plaintiffs, Chattanooga residents whose homes are adjacent to a tract of land that was rezoned to make way for the construction of a grocery store, sought a declaratory judgment that the zoning amendment was illegal. The City of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga City Council, and the developer, Wilwat Properties, Inc., were named as defendants. Plaintiffs argue that the rezoning did not comply with the Hixson-North River Land Use Plan; that the City Council's approval of the application is arbitrarily inconsistent with the council's prior denial of a similar application; and that the council impermissibly relied upon the recommendation of the Hixson North River Leadership Committee - a recommendation that was made at an informal meeting of which the plaintiffs claim to have had no notice. The trial court dismissed the case at the close of the plaintiffs' proof, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the zoning decision lacked a rational basis or was arbitrary, capricious or unconstitutional. Plaintiffs appeal. We affirm.

Opinion may be found at the TBA website:

"When a municipal governing body acts under its delegated police powers either to adopt or amend a zoning ordinance, it acts in a legislative capacity and the scope of judicial review of such action is quite restricted. [] In fact, legislative classification in a zoning law, ordinance or resolution is valid if any possible reason can be conceived to justify it.” [] Put another way, in cases where the validity of a zoning ordinance is fairly debatable, the court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the legislative authority. If there is a rational or justifiable basis for the enactment and it does not violate any state statute or positive constitutional guaranty, the wisdom of the zoning regulation is a matter exclusively for legislative determination. [] The courts should not interfere with the exercise of the zoning power ... unless the enactment ... is shown to be clearly arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, or welfare, or is plainly contrary to the zoning laws. ... The law deliberately makes the plaintiffs’ burden high, out of deference to the legislative power over zoning matters." Id. (citations and quotations omitted).

"[T]he plaintiffs’ extensive elucidation of the action’s non-compliance is ultimately a non-sequitur, because compliance with the Land Use Plan is not legally required. It is a plan, not a law. The City Council is allowed to deviate from it, and did so here." Id.

"The notion that we would invalidate the City Council’s 2006 action because of a perceived inconsistency with the council’s stated rationale for an action on a similar matter, four years prior, totally misconceives our role in cases such as this. ... If we can find any rational basis –
or, stated even more broadly, “any possible reason” – to uphold the council’s decision, we must do so, absent evidence of arbitrary, capricious, or illegal action by the council." Id.