The Constitution and You part 1

Constitutional law can be exciting, confusing, and controversial.  People appropriately chafe at burdensome laws, yet civilized societies are not civil without laws.    There is a balance.  Democracy is not just about finding a meaningful consensus and the majority opinion prevailing when a vote is taken, but it is also about engaging people to find solutions and to have their voices heard.

When your town’s planning and zoning commission creates and uses zoning regulations that directly affect land use, it shows daily the U.S. Constitution in action at a local level in your own town.  It gets no more real than that.  It is not a surprise that conflicts arise and the U.S. Supreme Court been involved in the legality of many land use regulations.  There is the individual defending his or her property rights, which is a personal matter.  There is a government permitting, prohibiting, and otherwise limiting land uses, which are important community public health, safety, and welfare matters.

In a series of articles, I will provide a simple primer on key constitutional land use regulation issues.  For this article, let’s look at the constitutional principle underlying why your town has zoning regulations.

The state enables municipalities to regulate land use within their borders.  This is a police power exercised by your town.  The government agency charged with creating, modifying, and ruling upon the zoning regulations is a planning and zoning commission.  For a different, limited purpose, an inland wetlands and watercourses agency has jurisdiction over certain types of land. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1926 ruled as constitutional a municipality’s regulation of its land in order to maintain and promote the public goals of health, welfare, and safety.  This case involved a legal challenge to the village of Euclid, Ohio and its use of a zoning ordinance regulating the use, development, and preservation of land.  The zoning ordinance of Euclid stated the need “to preserve the present character of said Village and the public improvement therein, to prevent congestion, and to promote and provide for the health, safety, convenience, comfort, prosperity, and general welfare of the citizens” and that the “various uses of property inconsistent with the proposed plan of Village of Euclid … would permanently injure or partially nullify such orderly plan of development”

There is limited land in your town to physically put all of the things you need and those things you want.  As a result, various land use activities invariably interact or interfere with each other.  Zoning regulations at the turn of the 20th century were developed as a means to protect residential neighborhoods from industrial, commercial, and other developmental interferences that could impact negatively upon quality of life.  Regulations sought to accomplish this by permitting only certain types of land use activities in specifically designated areas.  Other activities were prohibited in these same areas, yet were allowed in other designated areas.

The U.S. Supreme Court in its ruling stated that land use regulations were an extension of a government’s responsibility and authority to protect the public good.  Many subsequent rulings by the Court have not changed from that legal premise.  So long as land use regulations are grounded in protecting the public good, and do so in a reasonable manner without undue harm to individual property owners or landowners, then land use regulations may be legal.  The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that there are limits to such authority, as there should be with any governmental authority.  I am fond of stating that with authority, there comes responsibility to exercise that authority properly and fairly.  When the authority is exercised in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or outright biased manner, then government has overstepped itself and its actions are unconstitutional. 

In its Euclid ruling, the Court also recognized that as times change, different or new laws are needed, and some become obsolete, to match the specifics of any circumstance.  Communities change and develop over time, and land use regulations keep pace dealing with a community’s growth.  No one ruling of the Court or regulation by a municipality could be made that would cover all future land use possibilities.  A flexible approach was needed to serve continuously the public good.  The Supreme Court stated in 1926, and subsequently restated, that rulings on land use activities focus on the specifics of each individual case, using prior rulings as precedence.  This is one of the reasons that legal reviews of zoning regulations are challenging when new sets of circumstances arise.  It is also a reason that legal rulings on land use activities, especially those that limit a person’s use of property or of land, can vary case by case and cause some times for there to be major changes in laws or small, nuanced changes.

These are reasons why the Supreme Court has upheld, and state enabling legislation requires, that there be zoning boards of appeals.  Zoning regulations cannot take into account every individual parcel of land.  Sometimes, well-intentioned regulations benefit people throughout a community, but cause a specific hardship upon an individual landowner, of no fault of or creation by that landowner.  A zoning board of appeals has the authority to vary certain aspects of zoning regulations to attend to these particular circumstances, following defined legal criteria.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission.  Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.

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