Justia Zoning, Planning & Land Use Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Tennessee’s Billboard Act, enacted to comply with the Federal Highway Beautification Act, 23 U.S.C. 131, provides that anyone intending to post a sign along a roadway must apply to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for a permit unless the sign falls within one of the Act’s exceptions. One exception applies to signage “advertising activities conducted on the property on which [the sign is] located.” Thomas owned a billboard on an otherwise vacant lot and posted a sign on it supporting the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympics Team. Tennessee ordered him to remove it because TDOT had denied him a permit and the sign did not qualify for the “on-premises” exception, given that there were no activities on the lot to which the sign could possibly refer. Thomas argued that the Act violated the First Amendment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that the Act is unconstitutional. The on-premises exception was content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. Whether the Act limits on-premises signs to only certain messages or limits certain messages from on-premises locations, the limitation depends on the content of the message. It does not limit signs from or to locations regardless of the messages. The provision was not severable from the rest of the Act. View "Thomas v. Bright" on Justia Law

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American Islamic Community Center (AICC) unsuccessfully sought zoning permission to build a mosque in Sterling Heights, Michigan. AICC sued, alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment. The Department of Justice also investigated. The city negotiated a consent judgment that allowed AICC to build the mosque. At the City Council meeting at which the consent judgment was approved, people voiced concerns about issues such as traffic and noise; others disparaged Islam and AICC. Comments and deliberation were punctuated by audience outbursts. Eventually, Mayor Taylor cleared the chamber of all spectators, except the press. The Council voted to settle the case. A consent judgment was entered. Plaintiffs sought a judgment declaring the consent judgment invalid. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. The defendants fulfilled their procedural obligations; they considered and made findings on the relevant criteria, such as “parking, traffic and overall size,” before voting. The court upheld limitations on speech imposed during the meeting: the relevance rule and a rule forbidding attacks on people and institutions. The city did not “grant the use of a forum to people whose views it finds acceptable, but deny use to those wishing to express less favored or more controversial views.” View "Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights" on Justia Law

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Virginia Run Cove is a privately owned Memphis street that offers access to the parking lots of several businesses, including a Planned Parenthood clinic. It is described on county records as “common area” in a commercial development. Brindley sought a preliminary injunction requiring the city to let him stand near the entrance to this clinic and spread his pro-life message. He argued that Virginia Run Cove was a traditional public forum and that his exclusion from the street violated the First Amendment. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of his motion for a preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court has long held that public streets are traditional public fora. Even when a street is privately owned, it remains a traditional public forum if it looks and functions like a public street. Virginia Run Cove, which connects directly to a busy public thoroughfare, displays no sign of private ownership, and is used by the general public to access many nearby buildings, including the clinic, a gas station, a church, and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, has all the trappings of a public street. View "Brindley v. City of Memphis" on Justia Law

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The surface and mineral estates of “Tract 46” in Pike County, Kentucky have been severed for a century. Pike and Johnson own the surface estate as tenants in common. Pike also owns the entirety of the coal below and wants to mine. In 2013, Pike granted its affiliate a right to enter the land and commence surface mining. Despite Johnson’s protestations, Kentucky granted a surface mining permit. Mining commenced in April 2014. In 2014, as the result of a federal lawsuit, the Secretary of the Interior determined that the permit violated the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), 30 U.S.C. 1250. The deficiencies in the original permit were remedied; Kentucky issued an amended permit the same year. The Secretary then confirmed that the permit complied with federal law. Johnson sued again. An ALJ, the district court, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, first finding that Johnson exhausted its administrative remedies to the extent required by SMCRA. The ALJ’s application of Kentucky co-tenancy law, instead of the state’s rules of construction for vague severance deeds, to uphold the issuance of Elkhorn’s permit and the Secretary’s termination of the cessation order was not arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law. View "M.L. Johnson Family Properties, LLC v. Bernhardt" on Justia Law

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Saginaw, Michigan requires owners of vacant property to register their property. The registration form says that owners must permit the city to enter their property if it “becomes dangerous as defined by the City of Saginaw Dangerous Building Ordinance.”. Several property owners refused to register. The city imposed a fine. Claiming they had no obligation to consent to unconstitutional searches of their property, the owners filed suit. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The registration form and the ordinance, as implemented by the city, only ask for something that the Fourth (and Fourteenth) Amendment already allows—a warrantless search of a building found to be dangerous. The court noted the safeguards the ordinance provides before a property is declared dangerous. Because the registration form requires the property owner to allow entrance to his property only after a fair administrative process determines the building is dangerous, it does not require the waiver of any Fourth Amendment rights. View "Benjamin v. Stemple" on Justia Law

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Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) operates the coal-fired electricity-generating Gallatin Fossil Plant on a part of the Cumberland River called Old Hickory Lake, a popular recreation spot. The plant supplies electricity to approximately 565,000 households in the Nashville area but generates waste byproducts, including coal combustion residuals or coal ash. The plant disposes of the coal ash by “sluicing” (mixing with lots of water) and allowing the coal ash solids to settle unlined man-made coal ash ponds adjacent to the river. The plant has a permit to discharge some coal combustion wastewater, which contains heavy metals and other pollutants, into the river through a pipe. Other wastewater is allegedly discharged through leaks from the ponds through the groundwater into the Cumberland River, a waterway protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. 1251. The district court found that TVA violated the CWA because its coal ash ponds leak pollutants through groundwater that is “hydrologically connected” to the Cumberland River without a permit. The theory is called the “hydrological connection theory” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding no support for the hydrological connection theory in either the text or the history of the CWA and related environmental laws. View "Tennessee Clean Water Network v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law

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Upper Arlington's Master Plan guides its zoning decisions, emphasizing the need to increase the city’s revenue by attracting business development in the small portion of the city’s land that is devoted to commercial use. To further the Plan’s goals, the Unified Development Ordinance restricts the use of areas zoned "office district" to specific uses that are primarily commercial. The operation of schools, both secular and religious, is prohibited within the office district. Nonetheless, Tree of Life decided to purchase a large office building on a 16-acre tract within the office district for the operation of a pre-K through 12th-grade school. After failing to secure authorization to operate the school, Tree filed suit, citing the “equal terms” provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc(b)(1). After two prior appeals, the district court granted Upper Arlington judgment, holding that the Ordinance is no more onerous to Tree than to non-religious entities that generate comparably small amounts of revenue for the city. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Revenue maximization is a legitimate regulatory purpose. Upper Arlington’s assertion of revenue maximization as the purpose of the Ordinance is not pretextual. Daycares are the only potentially valid comparator put forward by Tree, which presented no evidence suggesting that nonprofit daycares are similarly situated to its proposed school in terms of their capacity to generate revenue. View "Tree of Life Christian Scool. v. City of Upper Arlington" on Justia Law

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Mason, an African-American Ohio resident sued against all 88 Ohio county recorders for violating the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against making, printing, or publishing “any . . . statement” indicating a racial preference, such as a racially restrictive covenant. Mason’s complaint included copies of land records, recorded in 1922-1957, that contain racially restrictive covenants. There is no allegation that such covenants have been enforced since the 1948 Supreme Court decision prohibiting enforcement of such covenants. Mason maintains that permitting documents with restrictive covenants in the chain of title to be recorded or maintained and making them available to the public violated the Act. Mason alleges that defendants “discouraged the Plaintiff and others from purchasing real estate ... by creating a feeling that they ... do not belong in certain neighborhoods” and that defendants’ actions “damage and cloud the title to property owned by property owners.” Mason’s counsel stated that Mason became aware of the covenants while looking to buy property, a fact not contained in the complaint. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Mason lacked standing. A plaintiff must show that he suffered a palpable economic injury distinct to himself; any alleged injury was not caused by the county recorders, who are required by Ohio statute to furnish the documents to the public; county recorders cannot redress the alleged harm, as they have no statutory authority to edit the documents. View "Mason v. Adams County Recorder" on Justia Law

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LCS, a nondenominational Christian school in Livingston County, Michigan, sought to relocate after operating for several years in Pinckney, LCS entered into a lease agreement to operate its school on the property of Brighton Nazarene Church in Genoa Charter Township. The Township informed LCS that an amended special-use permit was required. The Church applied for a permit on LSC’s behalf. The Township denied the application, citing traffic concerns, inconsistency with the surrounding area’s single-family residential zoning, the failure of the Planning Commission’s proposed conditional approval to mitigate these problems, and the Church’s history of noncompliance with the zoning ordinance and with conditions on its prior special-use permits. The district court rejected, on summary judgment, LCS’s claim that the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. When a religious institution has an available alternative outside of a desired jurisdiction, and where the distance from the desired location to the alternative property is reasonably close, the artificial boundaries of a particular jurisdiction become less important. The record here does not indicate that traveling roughly 12 miles to Pinckney would be unduly burdensome to LCS’s students. Nor does the record demonstrate that LCS’s religious beliefs required it to locate within Genoa Township. View "Livingston Christian School v. Genoa Charter Township" on Justia Law