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Standing Requirements for Zoning Lawsuits :: Michigan Courts

Over the years, the Michigan courts have struggled with which parties can bring a lawsuit or appeal in a county circuit court to challenge a zoning decision by a Michigan city, village or township. The concept is often referred to as “standing,” and centers on which party or parties (typically, a neighbor) has sufficient interest in a controversy to be able to bring a lawsuit or to appeal a zoning approval decision via a circuit court in Michigan. The standing issue arises in a variety of different zoning contexts, including challenging municipal zoning decisions such as rezonings, variances, special land use approvals, site plan approvals, and other zoning approvals.

Much of the legal community in Michigan thought the issue had been settled two years ago in the published Michigan Court of Appeals decision in Olsen v Chikaming Twp, 325 Mich App 170 (2018). That decision indicated that neighbors can appeal a variance decision by a municipal zoning board of appeals if and only if the neighbors could prove that they had incurred “special damages.” The Court of Appeals in Olsen made a distinction between “standing” and whether or not a party is “aggrieved” for purposes of a zoning board of appeals case, and indicated that a variance appeal involves only “aggrieved party” status. However, the Court also implied that the standard is the same in both a lawsuit challenge and a variance appeal, and that the challenging parties must prove “special damages” in either situation.

Thereafter, most attorneys thought that the issue was settled. However, more than one unpublished (non-binding) Michigan Court of Appeals decision since the 2018 Olsen decision has implied that the “special damages” standard was easier for a challenging party to demonstrate for zoning decisions other than variances.

On June 4, 2020, the Michigan Court of Appeals seemingly put these controversies to rest. In Ansell v Delta County Planning Commission, ______ Mich App _______ (2020), a published decision (and thus, binding), the Court of Appeals held that the same “special damages” standard applies to a lawsuit, appeal or challenge by neighbors or others, regardless of what type of zoning decision is involved. The Court also implied that the burden of proof for “special damages” is the same regardless of what type of zoning decision is involved.

Hopefully, the new Ansell decision will put the standing and related aggrieved parties issue to rest once and for all.
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