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Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection Challenges To Zoning Decisions

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals addressed the specificity with which local units of government should tailor zoning decisions to avoid constitutional violations.  In City of Holland v MCBR Properties, LLC, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued January 11, 2018 (Docket No. 336057), the City’s Zoning Ordinance prohibited residential properties within a specific zoning district adjacent to Hope College from allowing more than six vehicles to be parked on a single property; this came to be known as the “six vehicle rule.”  Owners of affected properties challenged the six vehicle rule on constitutional substantive due process and equal protection grounds.


Substantive Due Process


Substantive due process protects against arbitrary exercise of governmental power.  The Court noted that a zoning ordinance is invalid on substantive due process grounds when (1) it fails to advance a legitimate governmental interest or (2) it is an unreasonable means of advancing a legitimate governmental interest.   In this case, the stated objective of the six vehicle rule was to reduce traffic, noise, and noxious fumes caused by vehicular traffic.  While the Court agreed that such a goal constituted a legitimate governmental interest, the defendants’ arguments that the six vehicle rule did not prevent vehicles from driving through the zoning district, as well as the fact that it did not prevent vehicles that would otherwise park in residential property from parking on the street or other nearby public parking lots, required the Court to find that a genuine issue of material fact existed and remanded to the trial court. 


Equal Protection


The constitutional principle of equal protection mandates that persons in similar circumstances be treated similarly.  In this case, the issue was that rental properties located in one zoning district, which applied the six vehicle rule, were in close proximity to rental properties owned by Hope College which were located in an adjacent zoning district that did not apply the six vehicle rule.  To complicate matters, all of the properties at issue were located within an “overlay district” created by the City to encompass the Hope College campus, which included portions of both zoning districts.  This meant that some properties located within the “overlay district” were subject to the six vehicle rule while others were not. 


Accordingly, and similar to the substantive due process analysis, the Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court because the presence of the “overlay district” may create an equal protection issue to be addressed by the trial court.


As one can see, municipal zoning decisions can create unforeseen constitutional issues.  As such, it is imperative that municipalities are precise in addressing zoning concerns and should consult a municipal attorney to ensure adherence to constitutional principles.

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