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4th Circuit Rejects Suit by Homebuilder Challenging County’s Targeted Land Use and Zoning Restrictions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently rejected a suit by a homebuilder challenging county-level land use determinations and zoning changes due to these being issues better left to state-level decisionmakers and the state courts, and because the county had a plausible, rational basis for its actions.

In this case, a homebuilder purchased a large amount of real property and development rights with the ultimate intention of building homes on the property.  At the time, the property was subject to county-level zoning and land use requirements which would allow the land to be developed for residential use, subject to certain conditions.  While most of the conditions were already met at the time of the purchase, some were not.  Among other things, the county would need to provide certain approvals.  When the homebuilder sought the final approvals, the county refused to provide them.  Instead, the county amended its zoning and land use rules to place greater environmental restrictions on the land, reduce the number of homes that could be built, and instituted other regulatory restrictions which specifically affected the land the homebuilder sought to develop.  The changes made most—though not all—of the homebuilder’s land unsuitable for residential development.

The homebuilder brought federal and state constitutional claims against the county.  The district court dismissed the homebuilder’s claims, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

First, the Court ruled that as a matter of Due Process the homebuilder did not have any constitutional property interest to develop its land under the preexisting land use and zoning rules.  The county land use authorities were always vested with significant discretion to change the rules, and the homebuilder lacked any right to the necessary permits or approvals.

Second, the Court rejected an Equal Protection claim asserting that the county treated the homebuilder differently than others who were similarly situated.  The county’s actions only needed to be rationally related to a legitimate state interest.  Since the county was able to articulate detailed environmental concerns specific to the homebuilder’s property, and because the property at issue differed from other properties which the county did not subject to such restrictions, the county was justified in treating the homebuilder’s property as it did.  The Court noted that it would not second-guess the wisdom of elected local officials in making inherently discretionary zoning decisions.

Third, the Court held that the county’s actions did not constitute a regulatory taking under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property without just compensation.  The county’s actions did not deprive the property of all economic value (even though the value was significantly diminished), the homebuilder did not have an expectation that the land use and zoning rules would never be changed, and the county was justified in acting to protect the environment.

Fourth, the Court rejected a claim under a provision of the Maryland constitution which created a right to a remedy for an injury to one’s person or property, and a right of access to the courts.  For the first, the homebuilder did not have a protected property interest in the zoning and land use rules as they previously existed, such that there was no injury to property.  For the second, the homebuilder was not denied access to the courts, since the courts had in fact considered the substance of its claims (and found them to be deficient).

Finally, as a matter of federalism, the Court stated that resolving the routine land-use disputes that inevitably and constantly arise among developers, local residents, and municipal officials is simply not the business of the federal courts.  Instead, local zoning authorities needed to have the ability to respond to constantly changing environmental, economic, and social conditions.  To hold otherwise would be to invade the province of state law and render local officials unable to make the important decisions they were elected to make.

For a copy of the opinion, click here.