A recent Ohio Supreme Court decision reminds local governments that their zoning laws cannot be used to unconstitutionally deprive property owners of their property rights. In State ex rel. Sunset Estate Properties, L.L.C. v. Lodi (Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-790), the village of Lodi, Ohio learned this the hard way.
When zoning codes are updated over time, as happens frequently, current uses may not conform to the new zoning code, but are grandfathered in and classified as “legal nonconforming.” Local governments know that over time these nonconforming uses will cease and the property can be redeveloped into a conforming use. It is critical for property owners to be aware of what will constitute an abandonment or discontinuance of the current property use, as at that time the “grandfathered” status is lost and future use of the property must conform to the current zoning code.
In the above cited case, Lodi had passed a zoning law that steps could be taken when the nonconforming use stops for 6 months or more, and the nonconforming use cannot be reestablished. The last sentence of that ordinance was specific to mobile homes and stated that the absence or removal of an individual mobile home from its lot means the use have has been discontinued from the time of its removal.
This created an issue for mobile home parks that were grandfathered in as legal nonconfirming uses, where the owners of the property might have lots or mobile-homes on the lots are are not leased for 6 months or more. When a tenant was found for the lot, Lodi would refuse to reconnect water and electrical services to the new tenant’s mobile home, citing the last sentence to its zoning code.
R.C. 713.15 contains a general provision regarding nonconforming uses, providing 2 years as the default time frame in which a nonconforming use would be considered discontinued or abandoned and therefore no subject to reestablishment. The Revised Code however, allows for municipalities to establish a short time frame of anywhere from 6 months up to 2 years. Zoning ordinances contemplate a gradual elimination of the nonconforming use within the zoned area and generally, this will be found to be constitutional so long as it accomplishes this result without depriving a property owner of a vested property right.
The Ohio Supreme Court, in striking the last sentence from Lodi’s zoning code as being unconstitutional, held that “The plain language of the last sentence of the [Lodi] ordinance imputes a tenant’s abandonment of a lot with a mobile-home park on the park’s owner. In so doing, the provision impermissibly deprives the owner of the park of the right to continue the use of its entire property in a manner that was lawful prior to the establishment of the zoning ordinance.”
This decision reminds us that municipalities must take care to balance their desires to improve property values and encourage development with the vested property rights of property owners. While zoning codes will typically be upheld, there is a limit as Lodi learned the hard way.