Zoning Board’s Interpretation of “Ambiguous” Zoning Ordinance Trumps Interpretation of Court of Common Pleas

Lately, it seems that there are more and more decisions adversely affecting a municipality’s rights in terms of eroding “Home Rule” and other adverse judgments.

Today, (actually, October 4, 2012) score one for municipalities (and administrative agencies) with the Eighth District (Cuyahoga County) Court of Appeals decision: Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Et. Al. vs. Board of Zoning Appeals, City of Cleveland, 2012-Ohio-4602.

In the Cleveland Clinic case, Fairview Hospital (a hospital facility within the Cleveland Clinic Foundation system) sought to install a helipad adjacent to its hospital building. The City of Cleveland’s Zoning Administrator denied a permit for the helipad and the Clinic appealed to the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals (“BZA”). The BZA determined that a helipad was not a permitted accessory use in a “Local Retail Business District” and upheld the Zoning Administrator’s denial of the Permit. The BZA relied on City of Cleveland Ordinance 343.01(b)(8) which permits accessory uses in the business district, but provides that they must be “normally required for the daily local retail business needs of the resident locality only”. Since a “life flight” helicopter using a helipad could bring in injured persons from outside the locality, the BZA concluded that a helipad was not “an accessory use as of right in a Local Retail Business District”.

The Clinic then filed an administrative appeal with the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas (“Common Pleas Court”) who reversed the BZA’s decision, concluding that a helipad was a permitted accessory use in a Local Retail Business District. The Common Pleas Court used a different sub-section of the City ordinance to justify its reversal; namely City of Cleveland Ordinance 343.01(b)(1). Under C.C.O. 343.01(b)(1), “all uses permitted in the City’s Multi-Family District…are permitted uses in the Local Retail Business District”, and hospitals are included in the list of permitted uses (as accessory uses to the City’s Multi-Family District by virtue of C.C.O. 337.08). Interweaving custom with the plain language of C.C.O. 343.01(b)(1), the Common Pleas Court determined that since a helipad is “customarily incident to” a hospital, a helipad would be a permitted accessory use in a Local Retail Business District.

The BZA then appealed the Common Pleas Court decision to the Eighth District Court of Appeals (the “Court of Appeals”) who reversed the same, upholding the BZA’ s findings (and the Zoning Administrator’s denial of a permit for the helipad).

To help reach its decision, the Court of Appeals analyzed precedent, establishing, basically that a “court cannot blatantly substitute its judgment for that of an administrative agency, especially in areas of administrative expertise (See Dudukovich v. Lorain Metro Hous. Auth., 58 Ohio St. 2d 202, 207 [1979]). Later Ohio Supreme Court decisions similarly held that “when an agency is charged with the task of interpreting its own statute, courts must give due deference to those interpretations, as the agency has ‘accumulated substantial expertise’ and has been ‘delegated [with] enforcement responsibility’”(See Luscre-Miles v. Ohio Dept. of Edn., 2008 -Ohio-6781; Shell v. Ohio Veterinary Med. Licensing Bd., 2005-Ohio-2423). Even the United States Supreme Court has ruled that interpretive deference goes to the administrative agency vs. the judge “if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue” and a statute is ambiguous if the language is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. (See Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resource Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984)). 

Clearly, the Court of Appeals in the Cleveland Clinic case was faced with two interpretations, so it deemed the language of the zoning ordinance ambiguous, and because the ordinance was deemed ambiguous, it held that the Common Pleas Court was required, as a matter of law, to give due deference to the BZA’s interpretation of the ordinance, and since it failed to do so, it abused its discretion (governed by Ohio Revised Code Section 2506.01) when it reversed the BZA’s decision.

The Court of Appeals did note that the Clinic could petition for an amendment to the zoning code, deferring itself to the legislature stating that “the legislative branch is in the best position to weigh the competing interests at stake in drafting zoning laws for the city”. The founding fathers would be proud; the concept of “checks and balances” worked well in Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Et. Al. vs. Board of Zoning Appeals, City of Cleveland.

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