Is There a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Challenge a Zoning Decision?

In Woodcreek of Ann Arbor Association v City of Ann Arbor, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed an important issue about the proper procedure for bringing zoning challenges. While the decision is currently unpublished, it may have important implications for zoning litigation in state circuit court.

Woodcreek involved a challenge to the Ann Arbor City Council’s approval of a new condo complex. About a year after the City Council approved the site plan for the project, the challengers filed a complaint in circuit court seeking to overturn the approval The complaint alleged both procedural and substantive defects in the Council’s decision, including a constitutional argument based on substantive due process.

The Court of Appeals held that the challenge was untimely filed and subject to dismissal. In doing so, the Court found that all four of the claims should have been brought in the form of an appeal rather than a complaint, because they addressed “alleged flaws in the city council’s original decision” and sought to overturn it. Unlike original actions — which can often be brought as long as 6 years after a claim accrues — an appeal from a city council decision must filed within 30 days. As a result, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to consider a challenge filed nearly a year after the approval of the condo project.

The Woodcreek case provides needed clarity about the meaning of a provision in the court rules stating that appellate procedures “do[] not restrict the right of a party to bring a complaint for relief relating to a determination under a zoning ordinance.” For years, some attorneys have interpreted that provision as allowing a challenger to choose whether to file a complaint or an appeal in zoning cases. Some attorneys even do both, filing joint pleadings labeled “appeal/complaint.” These practices create confusion on a number of issues, including the filing deadline, the ability to conduct discovery, and the calculation of briefing deadlines.

The reasoning in Woodcreek rejects this interpretation with respect to claims based on “alleged flaws” in the underlying zoning decision. According to the Court, these claims are governed exclusively by the appellate court rules. Thus, Woodcreek may provide useful authority for a municipality to move to dismiss the “complaint” portion of a joint “appeal/complaint.” If successful, such a motion could limit the case to the administrative record and eliminate the need for costly discovery.

Unfortunately, Woodcreek decision does not give any examples of the types of claims “relating to a determination under a zoning ordinance” that can be brought in an original action. Surely that provision means something, so it can’t be the case that every tangentially-zoning-related claim must be filed as a zoning appeal.

While these boundaries will likely be tested in future cases, there seems to be at least two categories of claims that likely fall outside of Woodcreek’s analysis. The first category consists of inverse condemnation claims. Unlike the challenges in Woodcreek, an inverse condemnation claim does not allege a “flaw” in the underlying zoning decision. Rather, it alleges that the zoning decision effectively “takes” the plaintiff’s property, and that the plaintiff is therefore entitled to compensation under the Due Process Clause.

The second category consists of claims based on statutes that provide independent causes of action and limitations periods. Claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) would seem to fit this bill. While RLUIPA land use claims are almost related to zoning decisions, they don’t arise under the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. Moreover, federal courts have held that RLUIPA claims are subject to a 4-year statute of limitations, which would be undermined if Michigan law required them to be brought in an appeal filed within 30 days of the zoning decision.

As a final thought, it would be very helpful if the Court of Appeals publishes Woodcreek after release. If it remains unpublished, its impact on future zoning litigation may not be as strong as it otherwise would be.