N.C. Court of Appeals: Zoning Administrator Cannot Determine Standing to Appeal

by Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP
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In 2013, the General Assembly revamped the laws governing zoning boards of adjustment in North Carolina in S.L. 2013-126, entitled "An Act to Clarify and Modernize Statutes Regarding Zoning Boards of Adjustment".  The appellate case we'll discuss today interprets the laws existing prior to that revamping, but with lasting application to the powers of a zoning administrator in the context of handling an appeal of his or her land use decision.

Some Background
Morningstar, a full service marina, operates off Lake Gaston.  Across Lake Gaston, some 145 feet across Lake Gaston, from the Morningstar marina is some land owned by East Oaks, LLC.  East Oaks sought a conditional use permit to build townhouses on the property, an application it subsequently withdrew after someone (we'll never, ever know who) determined the proposed development was permitted under the Warren County zoning laws without the need for a conditional use permit. Accordingly, the Warren County zoning administrator issued a formal determination to East Oaks, LLC regarding its townhouse use.

Morningstar, however, disagreed with the formal determination, claiming that neither the proposed townhouses nor a proposed driveway were permitted under the zoning laws.  Morningstar appealed the townhouse determination and asked the zoning administrator to issue a formal determination regarding the driveway, as well (he'd already decided the townhouse issue).  As to the driveway determination, the zoning administrator refused.

First Appeal - The Townhouses
The Board of Adjustment heard Morningstar's appeal, and reversed the zoning administrator's determination regarding the townhouses.  East Oaks, LLC appealed that determination to the Superior Court though, curiously, Morningstar -- victorious before the Board of adjustment -- did not participate in the appeal to Superior Court.

The Superior Court issued a "consent order" between East Oaks (as petitioner before the Superior Court) and the County (as respondent), which included a conclusion of law that Morningstar "is not a 'person aggrieved'" such that the Board of Adjustment "had no jurisdiction or authority to hear" Morningstar's appeal of the zoning administrator's decision about the townhouses.

Again, we'll point out that Morningstar did not participate in this appeal to Superior Court and, thus, was not a party to the consent order determining its rights (or lack thereof) as a "person aggrieved" (or non-aggrieved, as it were). Interesting.

Second Appeal - The Drive
After seeking a writ of mandamus (it's getting heated, folks), which it ultimately dismissed, Morningstar received a formal determination from the zoning administrator regarding the drive, with which Morningstar also disagreed.  Morningstar then sought to appeal the zoning administrator's formal determination about the drive.

The zoning administrator, however, would not place Morningstar's appeal on the Board of Adjustment's agenda.  Why?  Well, it's simple: based on the "consent order" above, to which Morningstar was not a party, the zoning administrator took the position that Morningstar did not have standing to appeal the formal determination regarding a drive 145 feet across the lake.

Morningstar sought a writ of mandamus, which the Superior Court issued to compel the zoning administrator to place Morningstar's appeal on the Board of Adjustment's agenda.  The County appealed.  

The Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals, deciding the case pursuant to since-repealed NCGS 153A-345, determined that the zoning administrator has a "statutory duty to transmit Morningstar's appeal to the [Board of Adjustment]" and that "the existence - or nonexistence - of standing is a legal determination" for the Board of Adjustment, NOT for the zoning administrator.

The Court begins with a quote to the since-repealed statute:  "The officer from whom the appeal is taken shall forthwith transmit to the board all the papers constituting the record upon which action appealed from was taken."  NCGS 153A-345.  The current laws also contain similar, mandatory language that the Court of Appeals finds dispositive in the old law:  "The official who made the decision shall transmit to the board all documents and exhibits constituting the record upon which the action appealed from is taken."  NCGS 160A-388(b1)(5).

Closing the loop, the Court goes further with regard to the zoning administrator's limited powers:  "Neither N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-345 nor any other provision of North Carolina law confers upon a zoning administrator the power to make a legal decision as to whether a party seeking to appeal to the BOA from a zoning decision is a 'person aggrieved' for standing purposes."  The new laws do not now vest a zoning administrator with such power, either.

So, we can safely view Morningstar Marinas/Eaton Ferry, LLC v. Warren County No. COA13-458 (March 18, 2014) as current law.

The Dissent
Judge Elmore dissents, noting that the relatively recent case Smith v. Forsyth County, 186 N.C. App. 651 (2007) vests the zoning administrator "with authority to refuse to transmit an appeal to the BOA if the appealing party’s application is devoid of any allegations of special damages, namely a decrease in property" and with authority to "unilaterally dismiss the appeal for want of standing".

The majority distinguishes Smith: "We cannot agree with the dissent that our holding in Smith somehow confers a gatekeeper role onto zoning officers given that such a role is nowhere conferred by statute or, for that matter, identified in our decision in that case. Rather, we believe that Smith is consistent with the notion that it is the BOA that has the duty of determining whether a party has made the requisite showing of standing such that the merits of the appeal may be reached.

It remains to be seen if Warren County appeals.

"You did not allege special damages, so I will not transmit your appeal.  Get out!"

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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