ZBAs and Appellate Relief in Michigan

A Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) plays an important role in regulating the development of land. ZBAs interpret zoning ordinances, decide appeals from administrative decisions, and grant variances. A party aggrieved by a decision of a ZBA has the right of appeal to circuit court. A recent decision by the Michigan Supreme Court broadens the class of persons who can appeal decisions to, and from a ZBA.

In Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance v Saugatuck Township, the Plaintiff, a coalition dedicated to the protection and preservation of the local coastal dunes, sought to challenge a decision of the Planning Commission granting approval of a condominium and marina project. The Plaintiff objected to the project claiming it would permanently alter dunes in the area and destroy coastal wetlands.

The Plaintiff appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the project to the local ZBA. The ZBA ultimately decided that the Plaintiff lacked standing to pursue an appeal. Standing is the right of a person to invoke the power of a tribunal to adjudicate a claimed injury.

Plaintiff appealed the ZBA’s decision to circuit court. The circuit court sided with the ZBA. The case eventually made its way up to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Court noted that the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (“MZEA”) requires that a person seeking relief from a decision of a ZBA must be an“aggrieved” person or party. Previous cases had established a requirement that the aggrieved party must establish special damages different from those of others similarly situated property owners. In doing so, the special damage analysis became intertwined with a requirement for property ownership. As Saugatuck Dunes demonstrates, such a requirement can be an effective roadblock to public interest groups pursuing environmental policy objectives.

After reviewing the development of case law requiring ownership of property to pursue appeals to and from a ZBA, the Supreme Court overruled those cases to the extent they require an appealing party to own real property. Such a requirement amounts to an extra-statutory limitation on the term “aggrieved.” The Court stated nowhere in the MZEA is there a requirement limiting the right to appellate relief in zoning decisions to only real property owners. By using the broader phrase person or party aggrieved, the Legislature implicitly rejected the idea that standing is based on proximity to a proposed development.

The Court set forth three criteria necessary to meet the “aggrieved” standard under the MZEA. First, a party must have participated in the challenged decision by taking a position. The court noted participation could be established by submission of a letter or making a public comment at the hearing. Secondly, the party must have a legally protected interest or right that will likely be affected by the challenged decision. Finally, the party must provide evidence of special damages arising from the challenged decision in the form of an injury/burden that is different in kind/degree than others in the local community.

The Court remanded the matter back to the circuit court for reconsideration of the Plaintiff’s arguments in support of standing.