Zoning Laws Can Be Useful Without Stating Uses

By Chris Mincher
Of counsel, McAllister, DeTar, Showalter & Walker

An effective zoning scheme will be crafted with the realization that it’s not possible to list everything people might want to do with their property. If owners request permission for an activity that’s not precisely provided for, it’s important if there are other provisions informing employees, appeals boards, and courts as to how that should be handled. Those guiding principles can help protect a governmental decision to allow a use when the text of the law is ambiguous — just take a look at In the Matter of Laurell A. Aiton.

The case involved a forested lot in Waldorf zoned for “agricultural conservation” upon which the owner, Woodville Pines, wanted to build a lodge that would be rented out as an event venue. There wasn’t a special exception to the zoning classification for event venues, but there was for “social, fraternal clubs and lodges, union halls, meeting halls and similar uses.” Woodville Pines applied for the exception as a “similar use” to those and the Charles County Board of Appeals granted it, finding that “social assembly” was such a “similar use.” 

The adjacent landowners, who were also zoned agricultural conservation but mostly just stuck to residential homes on their properties, weren’t happy and challenged the decision. They particularly honed in on one requirement for the exception: that the “provision of food, refreshments and entertainment for club or organization members and their guests” be allowed in connection with the use.

The neighbors argued that this provision’s designation of “club or organization members and their guests” indicated that the exception wasn’t meant for venues that were rented to the public (or, at least, operated to prevent offering food, drinks, and entertainment to the public). On appeal, the circuit court agreed with them and overturned the Board’s decision. Up the ladder to the Appellate Court of Maryland, the county zoning ordinances got a much more holistic read, wrapping in others that shed light on what happens when a requested use isn’t directly addressed. 

First, yes, the code did list a bunch of uses, but it also explained that those should be interpreted “to include other uses that have similar impacts to the listed uses.” And if there’s any question as to how to analyze that unlisted use, it falls into “that classification which most closely and most specifically describes the proposed use.” Helpfully, “use” was defined as a “purpose or activity for which land, buildings, or structures are designed, arranged, or intended” or “occupied and maintained.”

Here, the Appellate Court reasoned, the special exception granted was for “similar uses” to “social, fraternal clubs and lodges, union halls, meeting halls” — that is, gathering socially. The adjacent landowners’ argument about who could take advantage of the exception (that is, only members and guests of clubs and organizations, versus the general public) improperly emphasized the user and not the use

There was another persuasive indication that the County intended for these similar uses to encompass such kinds of activities, even for the general public. The zoning for a farm alcohol production facility stated that, in order to host a private event like a wedding or party, it had to apply for a special exception under that exact same provision. So it was pretty evident the County meant for the uses associated with event spaces to be considered there.

Having established that the use of an event space was eligible for that exception, the only remaining issue was whether or not the “food, refreshments and entertainment” clause was satisfied. By its plain language, the Appellate Court noted, that term only required that clubs and organizations be allowed to provide their members and guests with food, refreshments, and entertainment; nowhere did it restrict the ability to also provide those things to the general public. The granting of the exception was therefore valid.

A few takeaways from this kerfuffle. To start, none of this would have been necessary if Charles County had updated its zoning code to reflect the reality that people will want exceptions to build event spaces. It’s not like these kinds of venues are all that rare or unique; indeed, the caveat for farm alcohol production facilities demonstrates the County was aware that people would want exceptions for weddings and parties and the like — why not amend the law to spell that out more clearly? Outdated zoning terminology, regardless of how longstanding and unobjectionable it has been applied in practice, ultimately does nobody any favors and leads to litigation like this. 

But it was a good thing, then, that the County zoning ordinances were expressly designed to capture other things that weren’t spelled out clearly. Those provisions told the Appellate Court to find the closest fit in the text and determine whether the Board was acting consistently with the law’s purpose. Every zoning scheme should include similar instructions on how to resolve requests for uses that aren’t explicitly mentioned. Local governments will be shown deference on how they apply their zoning codes and exceptions, but they first need to get past nitpicky details of each requested use and refocus courts on the big picture. 

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