Understanding Zoning Nonconforming Uses Is No Walk In The Park, But A Mobile-Home Park May Be Treated As A Unified Use.

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When Arizona municipalities adopt new zoning ordinances and regulations, existing property owners have the right to continue using their property for the use in place when the new ordinance or regulation becomes effective, including the right to make reasonable repairs and alterations.  See A.R.S. § 9-462.02(A).   This right to continue the “legal nonconforming use,” which is premised on due process concerns, may be lost if the owner makes major changes to the property after the new zoning law takes effect.  When property is divided into smaller units, questions may arise as to what constitutes the prior use and what changes destroy the protected status. 

In Stagecoach Trails MHC, L.L.C. v. City of Benson, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that a mobile home park in its entirety, rather than individual spaces within the park, is entitled to non-conforming use status.  665 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 18 (2013).  After the Stagecoach Trails park had been operating, the City of Benson amended its zoning regulations in 1998 to increase setback and minimum size requirements for spaces within mobile-home parks.  Though Stagecoach received several permits from 2003 to 2010 to replace mobile homes with models that did not comply with the newer setback requirements, the City denied a permit in 2010 unless Stagecoach showed that the mobile home it sought to install would not violate the newer setback requirements. 

Among other issues, the court addressed whether nonconforming use status applies to a mobile home park as a whole or to individual spaces.  In finding that “use” refers to the park as a whole, the court looked to statutes governing mobile home parks, which indicated that when mobile-home spaces are part of a larger park, the park should be treated as one use.  The court also found that the unified use was demonstrated by the fact that the Stagecoach park is a single parcel of land with one owner, and the individual spaces are not platted or legally recorded.

Finding that the nonconforming prior use applied to the park as a whole, the court then examined whether replacing mobile homes within the park constituted reasonable repairs or alterations.  An alteration is not reasonable if it replaces the entire nonconforming prior use or a major component thereof, or expands the exterior dimensions.  Because replacing a mobile home does not expand or replace the park, alter the number of units in the park, or expand the park’s acreage, the court held that replacing a mobile home within a mobile-home park is a reasonable alteration. The court remanded the case to determine whether the replacement in this case conformed with all zoning regulations that were in place at the time the park was a conforming use.

This case highlights three points that apply beyond the mobile-home park context: (1) an owner does not lose the right to continue using its property merely due to changed zoning regulations, (2) dividing a parcel into smaller units for use by different individuals does not necessarily transform the property into several separate uses, and (3) when a property has legal nonconforming use status, a property owner must consider whether planned changes are reasonable or so substantial that they might destroy the protected status.