2) Neighbors Challenging Zoning and Land Use Decisions
by Peter R. Olson, Esq. & Brandon L. Bowen, Esq.
Representing neighbors in land use cases has its own unique set of problems and issues. Neighbors often have a keen interest in development on adjacent property, but have relatively little input. The courts recognize that the question of neighbors input in rezoning cases is a question of how much influence the neighbors have on other people’s property. The courts are especially aware of this issue when it comes to an attack on a rezoning that has been granted by the local government. In such a circumstance, where the property owner has asked for a certain zoning classification, and the local government has agreed and granted the change, the courts are most reluctant to interfere. As the Supreme Court stated in a seminal neighbor case Lindsey Creek Area Civic Assoc. v. Columbus, 249 Ga. 488, 292 S.E.2d 61 (1982), “It is important to keep in mind that the governing authority has approved the zoning change, thereby giving its permission to the landowner to use the property as the landowner desires. It is also important to keep in mind that we deal now with the right or power of neighbors to deny to the landowner the right to use the property as the landowner desires and as approved by the governing authority.” 249 Ga. at 490.
Thus, despite the feeling of many neighbors that they should have more influence over rezoning changes, the courts are reluctant to intervene. The General Assembly has mandated public hearings under the Zoning Procedures Law, and so neighbors have access into the public hearing process, but once a decision is made, the standard to challenge becomes much tougher. In addition, from a practical point of view, representing neighbors has its own set of difficulties, that will be touched on briefly. First, this paper will discuss the standing issues for neighbors, and then the substantive challenges available to neighbors who are dissatisfied with a zoning decision.
STANDING ISSUES FOR NEIGHBORS
Many cases that are brought by neighbors get no farther than a challenge to standing. Simply being upset with the zoning change does not give a neighbor standing to bring a challenge in most cases. First, the practitioner must determine the precise nature of the zoning act being challenged. If the plaintiff merely wishes to challenge a use that is inconsistent with the existing zoning ordinance, the standing threshold is low- any citizen should be entitled to a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief that a use is not permitted by the existing zoning classification, regardless of whether or not the citizen suffers special damages because of the use. However, a subtle distinction exists when the citizen wishes to challenge an executive or administrative decision such as a building
permit that allows a use that is alleged to be inconsistent with an existing zoning ordinance. Instead of entering prospective relief, the court would be called on to remove an existing use. In that case, the court of appeals has held that special damages must be shown in order to challenge an existing use and the building permit allowing for that use. See Massey v. Butts County, __ Ga.App. __, __ S.E.2d __ (Ct.App. A05A1030, 2005). Similarly, when citizens wish to challenge a legislative decision in regards to zoning, such as a rezoning, the courts will also require a showing of special damages. Lancaster v. Effingham County, 273 Ga.App. 544, 615 S.E.2d 777 (2005). Typically, two sorts of plaintiffs attempt to bring challenges: individual neighbors and civic associations or neighborhood groups.
STANDING FOR INDIVIDUALS
Individual property owners may or may not have standing to enjoin rezoning depending upon the effect of such rezoning on the owners and their property. Since the question at issue is interference with others’ property rights, the courts have adopted a tough standing test. Although diminution in the values of the neighbors’ property (damages) is not considered when the merits are reached, it is considered on the issue of standing. It is in fact essential that the individual show damages that are different from the community in general. This can be a frustrating point to make to clients who are neighbors. The ultimate issue is not going to be decided on whether the neighbors’ property suffers some loss in value through the rezoning, but that question is central to the standing issue. As the Supreme Court stated in Lindsey Creek, “Allegations of damage to person or property sufficient to confer standing, or even proof sufficient to sustain the allegations when put in issue, do not in themselves determine the merits of the controversy and may even be irrelevant thereto. However, they are necessary in order to qualify the claimant as one entitled to present the controversy to the court for adjudication.” 249 Ga. at 491. In Brock v. Hall County, 239 Ga. 160, 236 S.E.2d 90 (1977), the Supreme Court adopted for use in zoning cases the “substantial interest-aggrieved citizen” test prescribed by the General Assembly as the requirement for standing to appeal board of adjustment decisions, noting that the test of standing in rezoning suits is similar to the special damages standing test as to public nuisances.
The substantial interest-aggrieved citizen test has two steps to show standing. First, a person claiming to be aggrieved must have a substantial interest in the zoning decision, and second, this interest must be in danger of suffering some special damage or injury not common to all property owners similarly situated. Neighbors who merely suffer inconvenience would not qualify, but persons who stand to suffer damage or injury to their property which derogates from their reasonable use and enjoyment of it would meet this test.
Damages that are not sufficient to be special damages distinct from those experienced from all property owners in the area would include increased traffic, potential for storm water issues, crime threats, and generalized claims that home values will diminish. These sorts of general claims are typically rejected.
In both Lindsey Creek, and Victoria Corporation v. Atlanta Merchandise Mart, Inc., 101 Ga.App. 163, 112 S.E.2d 793 (1960), the courts held that the mere increase in traffic
congestion adjacent to one’s property as the result of improvements erected on nearby property and the attendant inconvenience resulting therefrom which are damages suffered alike by all property owners similarly situated, does not give to one individual such a substantial interest in a zoning decision to authorize a challenge. The courts call increased traffic a condition incident to urban living. “It is merely the result of normal, urban growth and development. To hold that such an inconvenience would give to any resident or property holder of an urban area the right to override the decisions of boards of zoning appeals any time such property owner or resident disagreed with such decision would be a dangerous precedent to establish. It would result in materially slowing, if not completely stopping, the inevitable and necessary growth of large modern cities.” 249 Ga. at 491.
Neighbors in the Lindsey Creek case, supra, complained of flooding potential from the proposed development, which was a 42-acre site rezoned for commercial use and apartments. The court noted that the ordinance rezoning the property included conditions that water drainage be handled adequately to reduce or maintain the same flow that is currently shed from the now undeveloped land, which is a provision contained in most all current development regulations. The court concluded that those conditions are enforceable when permits are issued, and do not raise a damage issue.
Crime, Noise, Other Nuisance
Generalized claims of crime, noise and other nuisances in the neighborhood increasing have been rejected. See Macon-Bibb Co. Planning & Zoning Comm. v. Vineville Neighborhood Assoc., 218 Ga.App. 668, 462 S.E.2d 764 (1995). However, in DeKalb Co. v. Wapensky, 253 Ga. 47, 315 S.E.2d 873 (1984), the court held, “In the present case not only was there testimony that the value of neighboring properties would be reduced, but that additional damages in the form of noise, odor, and visual intrusions on peace and privacy would occur to deny in varying degrees the complainants’ use of their property.” This appears to be no more than generalized claims, but the record may have contained more specific detail.
Home Value Diminution
Generalized claims that home values in the neighborhood will decline have also repeatedly been rejected as insufficient to give standing. In Lindsey Creek, the court held that, although the neighbors testified that in their opinions the value of their homes would be reduced by the increased traffic and the proximity of the proposed psychiatric hospital, evidence of a general reduction in property values is not the substantial interest required to meet the aggrieved citizen test for standing. Similarly, in Macon-Bibb Co. Planning & Zoning Comm. v. Vineville Neighborhood Assoc., 218 Ga.App. 668, 462 S.E.2d 764 (1995), the court rejected general claims from the neighbors about lower property value, noting that no expert real estate appraiser, traffic engineer, land planner, or other expert witness testified at the zoning hearing that any member of the Association, whether adjoining landowner or otherwise, would suffer any substantial damage to any substantial interest. The court also pointed to Lindsey Creek as standing for the proposition that neither the homeowners’ opinions that their property values would decrease nor their
claims of nuisance met the substantial interest required to satisfy the aggrieved citizen test for standing.
Specific Home Value Diminution
As can be seen, the generalized claims for damages are typically insufficient. The best evidence for standing is a specific showing of a decline in home values supported by expert testimony from adjacent property owners. In DeKalb County v. Wapensky, 253 Ga. 47, 315 S.E.2d 873 (1984), and in Brand v. Wilson, 252 Ga. 416, 314 S.E.2d 192 (1984), the Supreme Court concluded that evidence of a 15-20 percent decline in value of a neighbor’s adjoining property was sufficient evidence upon which a trial court might find substantial damage to a substantial interest. As the court put it in Wapensky, homeowners who will “bear the brunt of the changed conditions” typically will have a substantial interest. Such persons are not casting themselves in the role of “champions of the community,” if they have presented evidence of an interest of real worth and importance. Thus, the best way to have standing is to have directly adjacent neighbors who can present evidence of potential diminished value from an expert, in addition to other nuisances such as specific noise, odor, light pollution, etc.
A Creative Exception
A fairly new development in case law regards the standing of neighbors to enforce a zoning ordinance, or to seek a declaration of the effect of a rezoning vote, in contrast to an appeal of a rezoning decision. In Head v. DeKalb, 246 Ga.App. 756, 542 S.E.2d 176 (2000), the Court of Appeals drew a distinction between the former and the latter. For the former type case, the declaratory judgment standard applies. In the latter type case, the substantial-interest/aggrieved citizen test still applies. In the Head case, the neighbors were not challenging the merits of a rezoning decision but whether the vote of the DeKalb Board actually resulted in the rezoning of the property. The Court interpreted this as a case seeking a declaration of the effect of the vote, rather than an appeal of the rezoning. Standing was confirmed in the subsequent version of the case after remand, Rock v. Head, 254 Ga.App. 382, 562 S.E.2d 768 (2001). This case can be used as a creative method for neighbors to obtain standing, and also to escape the normal 30-day appeal time, but the downside is that neighbors relying upon the rule in Head should not be allowed to delve into the merits of the zoning decision. For example, the claim that the rezoning was invalid because it represents a manifest abuse of the zoning power would not fall within the Head exception.
STANDING FOR CIVIC ASSOCIATIONS
Civic associations and subdivision clubs do not have standing to enjoin rezoning unless they own property affected by the rezoning, or unless they are joined by individual plaintiffs who have standing to do so. Normally the standing of one party is not dependent upon the standing of another party. Nevertheless, in zoning cases the courts find this “dependent standing” preferable to (a) detailed inquiry as to the membership of the civic association to determine its independent standing, or (b) requiring those individual property owners who have standing to bear the entire burden of opposing the rezoning. See Lindsey Creek, supra.
In DeKalb Co. v. Druid Hills Civic Assoc., 269 Ga. 619, 502 S.E.2d 719 (1998), the Supreme Court provided additional insight into the logic of not permitting civic associations to have standing alone, holding “Zoning ordinances and determinations do not confer a public right to the extent that they can be attacked by anyone interested in having the laws executed and the duty in question enforced. A party must have a special interest in order to enforce or attack a zoning determination. To rule otherwise would bestow a procedural advantage upon remote parties as opposed to those who are directly affected. This is true because remote parties could proceed directly to court by means of mandamus or injunction while parties with special damage would be required to exhaust administrative remedies.” See also Rice v. Lost Mountain Homeowners Association, Inc., 269 Ga. App. 351, 604 S.E.2d 215 (2005)(Homeowner’s association had standing even though it had been administratively dissolved.)
CLAIMS OF NEIGHBORS
Once sufficient neighbors with standing have been identified, the challenge can go forward. Neighbors can attempt to launch challenges to the merits of the zoning decision, or they can attempt to find a procedural flaw, or they can attempt to find a fraud or conflict of interest flaw. Of course, like any zoning suit, there are certain procedural prerequisites that should be addressed first, and these will be discussed first below.
Thirty Days to Sue
The thirty-day requirement for appealing a zoning decision should be considered the statute of limitations for neighbor challenges. This thirty-day timeframe comes from O.C.G.A. § 5-3-20, because the challenge is an appeal to the superior court. There are two limited exceptions to this rule. First is the circumstance mentioned above where the challenge is actually cast as a declaratory judgment seeking a determination as to the effect of a zoning action, rather than the appeal of a zoning decision. This is a subtle distinction, however, and it should not be routinely relied upon. The typical challenge to a zoning action is an appeal, and should be filed timely. The second exception is a challenge to the validity of the zoning decision under the Zoning Procedures Law or general notions of due process, which can serve to invalidate a zoning decision even years later. This will be discussed further below.
It should be noted that case law indicates that the 30 days run from the time that the zoning decision is reduced to writing. Frequently, that occurs when the minutes of the vote are adopted at the next regular meeting of the governing body. See Chadwick v. Gwinnett County, 257 Ga. 59, 354 S.E.2d 420 (1987). Thus, if you are faced with a situation where the neighbors contact you more than 30 days after the meeting at which property was rezoned, you may still have an opportunity to bring the case, if 30 days have not yet elapsed since the minutes were adopted, and the decision was not otherwise reduced to writing.
Proper Venue, Jurisdiction and Parties
In most cases, zoning challenges should be brought in the Georgia superior court and not a federal court. The federal courts have stated that zoning cases pertain to property rights, which arise from state, rather than federal, law. So long as the state provides a remedy for the deprivation of property rights through zoning decisions, there is no federal claim. Georgia does provide such a remedy, through the ability to appeal to the Superior Court, or to seek mandamus or declaratory judgment, whichever is appropriate. See generally Lewis v. Brown, 409 F.3d 1271 (11th Cir., 2005). Federal courts have said on several cases that they are not interested in becoming courts of zoning review, so it is difficult to imagine the case on behalf of a neighbor that should be brought in federal court.
Zoning suits are suits in equity and are heard in superior courts. Village Centers, Inc. v. DeKalb County, 248 Ga. 177, 178, 281 S.E.2d 522 (1981). The typical challenge is a challenge to the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance, and hence cannot be tried in state court. Incidentally, where a property owner challenges the denial of a rezoning application, the challenge is always to the constitutionality of the existing zoning, not whether the proposed zoning is constitutional or provides a higher and better use.
Zoning cases are brought against the city or county making the zoning decision. Suits against counties should be brought against the county. Ga. Const., Art. 9, Sec. 1, Para. I. The governing authority, such as the Board of Commissioners, is an equivalent entity. Guhl v. Tuggle, 242 Ga. 412, 249 S.E.2d 219 (1978). Entities such as planning commissions or boards of zoning appeals are not proper parties as they do not have the power to zone. Riverhill Community Ass’n v. Cobb County Bd. of Com’rs, 236 Ga. 856, 226 S.E.2d 54 (1976).
Since this is a neighbor challenge, the challenge is to a successful rezoning of another person’s property, and the successful applicant should be named as a party. Riverhill Community Ass’n v. Cobb County Bd. of Com’rs, 236 Ga. 856, 226 S.E.2d 54 (1976). The property owner is a necessary party under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-19. See Ferguson v. Composite State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 275 Ga. 255 at 260, 564 S.E.2d 715 (2002)(J. Carley dissenting). The property owner would have the right to intervene were they not named, and the decision needs to be binding on them as well.
Individual city council members or county commissioners are not necessary or proper defendants in their individual capacity. They can be named in their official capacity, but that is generally superfluous. Technically, mandamus requires naming an individual, but many mandamus cases proceed simply against the city or county themselves. If a claim of personal wrongdoing exists, claims can of course be brought against individual government officials. Otherwise, claims against officials in their individual capacity are dangerous and can lead to sanctions or abusive litigation suits. Governing authority officials have legislative immunity in their individual capacity against challenges in zoning suits. Whipple v. City of Cordele, 231 Ga.App. 274, 499 S.E.2d 113 (1998).
The proper venue is of course the county where the local government sits, which is also where the land sits, and so this is never an issue.
Proper Form of Suit
Zoning appeals are frequently either brought as declaratory judgment actions or mandamus cases. Sometimes they are simply styled appeals. Because the appeal of a zoning decision is a de novo review, this aspect of the form matters relatively little, unless the ordinance specifies a particular form for the appeal. The courts have held that local governments have some discretion as to how an administrative appeal proceeds, holding that there can be a direct appeal, if the ordinance so provides, or otherwise it should go by mandamus. Beugnot v. Coweta County, 231 Ga.App. 715, 500 S.E.2d 28 (1998). An administrative appeal would be one from a permit or variance denial. Mandamus, under O.C.G.A. § 9-6-20 et seq., has some of its own rules, including a very short timeframe for the hearing. Normally mandamus would not be appropriate for a neighbor challenge, however, because mandamus relief is only appropriate when there is a clear legal right to government action. Since zoning decisions are legislative, and thus discretionary in nature, it will be difficult to show a clear legal right to a certain determination as to another person’s property. The courts have even approved requiring such an appeal to go by writ of certiorari, a truly arcane proceeding under O.C.G.A. § 5-4-1 et seq. Jackson v. Spalding County, 265 Ga. 792, 462 S.E.2d 361 (1995). Electing the writ of certiorari prevents the mandamus sort of ambush, and so it has been selected by many jurisdictions. Whenever you are in a jurisdiction requiring writ of certiorari review, you must put your case up before the governing authority, because the appeal will likely be on the record, rather than de novo.
The zoning appeal will ultimately be decided by the judge, as the constitutionality of a zoning decision is not a jury question. Dover v. City of Jackson, 246 Ga.App. 524, 541 S.E.2d 92 (2000). Further, the appropriate decision, if the court finds the current zoning unconstitutional, is not to rezone the property, but only to order the property rezoned in a constitutional fashion. Town of Tyrone v. Tyrone LLC, 275 Ga. 383, 384, 565 S.E.2d 806 (2002). The result would be different of course if the determination were that the rezoning decision were invalid; in that case the preexisting zoning determination would still be in effect.
MANIFEST ABUSE OF THE ZONING POWER
Once Plaintiffs with standing have been located, the attorney is ready to file suit within thirty days, and the attorney has identified the essential parties, venue, and form of the case, the next question is what claims to bring. The most basic claim is simply a direct challenge to the rezoning. Again, however, because the courts are dealing with the right or power of neighbors to undertake to control the use of nearby land owned by another, diminution in the values of the neighbors’ property (i.e., damages), unlike the usual property damage case, is not in and of itself cause to set aside the rezoning. Neighbors of rezoned property cannot invalidate the rezoning by showing that the preponderance of the evidence was against the zoning change. When neighbors of rezoned property challenge the rezoning in court on its merits, it will be set aside only if fraud or corruption is shown or the rezoning power is being manifestly abused to the oppression of the neighbors. Cross v. Hall County, 238 Ga. 709, 235 S.E.2d 379 (1977). Fraud or corruption will be dealt with below, and this section discusses the “manifest abuse of the zoning power” standard.
Manifest abuse of the zoning power to the oppression of the neighbors is a difficult concept to grasp, as it is frequently intertwined with claims of fraud or conflict of interest, or it is co-joined with procedural defects. That is to say, it is rarely separated as a
concept in and of itself. It is difficult to say if there could be a rezoning that was procedurally proper, where no person had a conflict, and yet still constituted a manifest abuse just based solely on the rezoning itself. Passing references to showings of constitutional rights that have been abridged suggest one avenue. Another seems to be a showing that the action taken, whether a rezoning or other land use grant, flatly violates the provisions of the zoning ordinance. An example would be an ordinance requiring a certain minimum size or some other provision and the decision simply violating that ordinance. The concept indeed has not appeared much in neighbor cases in recent years, and a search of the case law indicates that there have been no reported appellate decisions dealing with the manifest abuse of the zoning power in 15 years.
ZONING PROCEDURES LAW/ DUE PROCESS CHALLENGES
A much stronger potential challenge by neighbors is a challenge to the due process of the rezoning, and/or a challenge under the Zoning Procedures Law, O.C.G.A. § 36-66-1 et seq. If the rezoning was conducted without complying with the Zoning Procedures Law, it would be invalid. Typically this would be because of a defect in the sign posting or the newspaper requirements, such as not being put up or published sufficiently early. The ZPL requires the notice be published at least 15 but no more than 45 days before the hearing, and that the sign be published at least 15 days before the hearing. Challenges have been successfully made to the content of the notice, when for example the rezoning is ultimately granted to some other classification than the sign and notice provided. The Supreme Court requires strict compliance, not the usual “substantial compliance” with the terms of the Zoning Procedures Law. McClure v. Davidson, 258 Ga. 706, 373 S.E.2d 617 (1988).
For challenges asserting a denial of procedural due process, the Courts have allowed challenges years later to go forward and succeed. The reasoning is that without due process, the rezoning is void and can be challenged at any time, as it was void. Golden v. White, 253 Ga. 111, 316 S.E.2d 460 (1984). This of course can be very frustrating to an innocent developer who is relying on actions taken years before. In the Golden case, it did not matter that the person bringing the due process challenge for lack of notice did not even live in the area at the time of the rezoning and could not possibly have received notice. Rezoning runs with the land and not the person, and if the notice was defective, the rezoning is defective.
The downside to these challenges is that the local government that granted the rezoning can cure the problem by running the zoning through the process again. For this reason, the lawyer contemplating bringing a neighbor challenge should consider the politics of the local government. Frequently, by the time a decision is reached, elections will have changed the composition of the governing authority, and the new governing body may be more favorable to the neighbor’s position.
Unsuccessful rezoning applicants often try to challenge the entire ordinance as being procedurally void under the ZPL. The effect when such an attack is successful is that there are no land use restrictions upon the subject property. This is not a desirable challenge for neighbors, however, because neighbors rely on the zoning ordinance to protect their land. If the zoning ordinance is struck down, the property owner can do whatever she likes upon the property, not just those uses in the undesirable zoning classification.
FAILURE TO FOLLOW OWN PROCEDURES
Another useful challenge for neighbors is to challenge whether the local government followed all the procedures in its own ordinance. Even if the procedures are not required by the ZPL, they can be binding. In such cases, one option for the trial court is to remand the decision. Helmley v. Liberty Co., 242 Ga.App. 881, 531 S.E.2d 756 (2000). In Brand v. Wilson, 252 Ga. 416, 314 S.E.2d 192 (1984), the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the rezoning was defective because of a failure of the application to submit a plat, which was a requirement of the zoning ordinance, and would serve to give the surrounding property owners notice of the use to which the property would be put if rezoned. The Court has repeatedly required strict compliance with the notice requirements of zoning ordinances. See South Jonesboro Civic Assoc. v. Thornton, 248 Ga. 65, 67, 281 S.E.2d 507 (1981), and cases there cited.
FRAUD OR CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Finally, there is the very useful claim of fraud or conflict of interest. As noted above, this is often paired with the concept of manifest abuse of the zoning power. The basic formulation for a fraud would be that a zoning commissioner should be disqualified if he holds a direct or indirect financial interest in the outcome of the zoning vote, which is not shared by the public in general and which is more than remote or speculative. Olley Valley Estates v. Fussell, 232 Ga. 779, 208 S.E.2d 801 (1974). Cases where the planning commission chairman was also vice president of the applicant raised a potential conflict (Dunaway v. City of Marietta, 251 Ga. 727, 308 S.E.2d 823 (1983)) as did cases where voting commissioners sold products or services to the applicant (Wyman v. Popham, 252 Ga. 247, 312 S.E.2d 795 (1984)).
The burden of proof on showing a fraud or conflict of interest has been found to be a preponderance of the evidence. In Wyman v. Popham, 252 Ga. 247, 312 S.E.2d 795 (1984), the Court considered the issue: “The general rule against inquiring into the motives of the legislative body gives way as a matter of public policy where there is an allegation or appearance of corruption or fraud. Bearing in mind that fraud is often subtle and difficult of proof, and, in addition, that the integrity of the process of public deliberation is of the utmost importance to the public weal, we will not impose upon those claiming fraud or corruption in the promulgation and administration of zoning ordinances any standard other than that of the preponderance of the evidence.”
The General Assembly has also created a somewhat weak statutory provision, the Conflict of Interest in Zoning Act, O.C.G.A. § 36-67A-1 et seq. This act requires disclosure and recusal of commissioners with a direct financial interest or direct ownership interest in the property. If their relative has a direct financial or ownership interest, this act simply requires disclosure. It also requires disclosure of campaign contributions by supporters and opponents.
The Act requires that the disqualified local government official not take any other action on behalf of himself or any other person to influence action on the application for rezoning after disqualification. Little v. City of Lawrenceville, 272 Ga. 340, 528 S.E.2d 515 (2000), narrowed this prohibition to “official action.” In other words, local government officials can do anything that a citizen can do.
One slight variation on the fraud and conflict of interest claim would be the violation of the constitutional trust provision of the Georgia Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Para. I, which states, “All government, of right, originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole. Public officers are the trustees and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them.” The constitutional trust provision is applied when a public officer has definitely benefited financially (or definitely stood to benefit financially) as a result of simply performing their official duties. Ianicelli v. McNeely, 272 Ga. 234, 527 S.E.2d 189 (2000). This is of course very close to the traditional fraud in zoning test. Interestingly, in the recent case of Crozer v. Reichert, 275 Ga. 118, 561 S.E.2d 120, 2 FCDR 734 (2002) the Court stated, “In Dunaway v. City of Marietta, 251 Ga. 727, 308 S.E.2d 823 (1983), we held that the constitutional trust provision prohibits the chairman of the city planning commission from any participation in zoning applications filed by a corporation in which the chairman served as an officer.” This is an interesting comment because Dunaway does not mention the constitutional trust provision nor cite to the Constitution. In any event, it is now seen as falling under the ambit of this provision, which simply provides another basis to attack a financial conflict of interest in any public officer.
This is useful to neighbors to the extent the definition of a “public officer” is quite broad, and is broader than the traditional analysis would cover, with its focus on the decision makers themselves. In Crozer, the official at issue was the planning director, who had an application in on his own property, and asked a staffer to review it. The Court noted that the term “public official” consistently has been given broad application by the appellate courts. The Court recognized that if the individual is appointed, the determination of whether he is a public officer is to be made based on an analysis of that person’s duties, powers and obligations, not the extent of his authority. The record did not contain enough evidence, so summary judgment in the planning director’s favor was reversed.
An additional favorite claim of neighbors is that the rezoning constitutes “spot zoning.” “Spot zoning” is a term used by the courts to describe a zoning amendment which is invalid because it is not in accordance with a comprehensive or well-considered plan. East Lands, Inc. v. Floyd County, 244 Ga. 761, 262 S.E.2d 51 (1979). It has been defined as the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area, for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners. Spot zoning is generally used to refer to rezoning a small parcel to a classification that differs from the general surrounding area. However, just because a small area is zoned differently from the surrounding area does not equate to spot zoning. Spot zoning has been found in relatively few cases. The general test for spot zoning is whether the zoning is arbitrary or whether it is done in accordance with the comprehensive plan. The analysis depends heavily on the facts of the particular case.
Spot zoning has not been mentioned in a decision of the Georgia Supreme Court since 1987 and has not been seriously discussed since 1981. See Bobo v. Cherokee County, Ga., 248 Ga. 554, 285 S.E.2d 177 (1981). In Bobo, the Supreme Court found that the
decision to deny the rezoning of property from residential to commercial amounted to the denial of due process, and held that, despite the fact that it would inject a commercial use into a primarily residential area, it did not constitute spot zoning, because there was little evidence of harm to other owners and substantial evidence of harm to Bobo. Thus, a radically inconsistent use is attacked under the framework of an insubstantial relation to the public health, safety, welfare and morality.
The preceding sections discussed the technical aspects of representing neighbors and thinking about the claims they can bring. There are additional practical difficulties that bear mention. Specifically, representing a group of neighbors creates problems with funding, control and divergent interests.
First of all, there are always more neighbors frustrated by a rezoning decision than are willing to pay to actually go to court. Hence, an ad hoc group that has formed to oppose a decision may have numerous members, but few actual deep pockets. Occasionally a well-funded civic association has been incorporated, and in that case the civic association can be the client. Of course, given standing concerns, adjacent property owners need to be located to be plaintiffs as well, and then there are multiple parties to represent, and sometimes the persons contributing the most financially are not the named parties. It should be made clear that as an attorney, one actually represents the interests of the plaintiff, and that if that causes a conflict with the interest of those paying, there may have to be a withdrawal. Ideally, if there is a civic association, contact can be maintained just with the president or other officer of that group who will coordinate communications with the other interested parties. If there is no real formal group, then the task is to ensure each plaintiff and the major supporters are kept in the loop, but they should be asked to designate a spokesperson or contact point so that the attorney does not get conflicting instructions.
There is always the potential of interests diverging between the various parties. Immediately adjacent neighbors can sometimes be satisfied by promises of buffers and other consideration, which may make the use palatable, especially when that person is paying to fund the litigation. Such a settlement offer will likely not make happy the neighborhood gadfly who opposes the rezoning on principal but does not live immediately adjacent to the property. For this reason, it is very important to ascertain who exactly the client is early in the representation.
On the funding issue, the attorney needs to make sure he or she has a good fee letter or contract with the key parties, rather than the unincorporated association. The neighbors need to understand that certain individuals will ultimately be held financially responsible for fees and costs. Just having an agreement with an unincorporated association without assets is worthless if fees run up at trial and no one wants to pay. Like any new client, a retainer is a good idea, but groups of neighbors often have to bundle smaller checks to achieve a reasonable retainer.