Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Zoning, Planning & Land Use
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The case revolves around a dispute over a 15,000 square foot vacation home, the Chesapeake, located in Currituck County, North Carolina. The home is owned by Elizabeth LeTendre and has been the subject of litigation for over a decade regarding its compliance with county and state zoning requirements. The home's design includes a central area and two side wings, each structurally independent and less than 5,000 square feet. LeTendre's neighbors, Marie and Michael Long, contested that the Chesapeake violated a county zoning ordinance, which was upheld by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The County then sued LeTendre to enforce the mandate and hold her in contempt if she refused to comply.LeTendre removed the case to federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Chesapeake now complies with both county and state requirements. She argued that a recent amendment to North Carolina’s state zoning law abrogated the previous ruling. The district court agreed with LeTendre, holding that the County’s interpretation of a single-family detached dwelling, as applied to the Chesapeake, is “inconsistent with the State Building Code’s definition of a dwelling.”The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that the Building Code Council’s determination that the Chesapeake is “a building” controls. The court rejected the appellants' arguments that the district court's ruling violated principles of res judicata and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, stating that the court was not reviewing whether the previous rulings correctly interpreted the Ordinance, but rather that the zoning amendment made the Council decision controlling. View "Currituck County v. LeTendre" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around two developers, SAS Associates 1, LLC and Military 1121, LLC, who filed a complaint against the City Council of Chesapeake, Virginia, alleging that their equal protection rights were violated when their rezoning applications were denied by the council. The developers owned several parcels of land in Chesapeake and sought to combine them to create a 90-acre development involving housing units, commercial space, and a conservation district. Their plans required rezoning, which was denied by the Council citing community opposition and the ability to develop under existing zoning classifications. The developers filed a complaint alleging that their application was denied even though similar applications from other developers were approved, and the council's reasons for denial were irrational and arbitrary.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the developers' claim. The Court of Appeals found that the developers failed to demonstrate that they were treated differently from others who were similarly situated and that the unequal treatment was the result of discriminatory animus. Furthermore, the court highlighted that zoning decisions are primarily the responsibility of local governments and that the Developers did not provide any valid comparators to support their claim of discriminatory treatment. The court noted the lack of any evidence to infer discriminatory intent on the part of the City Council members and ruled that the Developers' disagreement with the Council's decision does not render the Council's judgment call pretextual. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court dismissing the complaint. View "SAS Associates v. City Council of Chesapeake" on Justia Law

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The Town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina (the “Town”) requires housing developers seeking a special use permit to set aside a portion of their developments for low-income residents or pay a fee in lieu of that condition. In 2015, Epcon Homestead, LLC (“Epcon”)  initiated its purchase of property subject to the fee-in-lieu. Epcon paid the requisite fee installments, commenced the development project, and sold each parcel. After Epcon satisfied its final fee installment in March 2019, it brought this lawsuit under a state cause of action to recover the whole sum it had paid to the Town and alleged federal takings and due process violations. The district court dismissed the case under North Carolina’s three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. Epcon promptly appealed, asking this Court to hold that the statute of limitations on Epcon’s federal claims began instead when it paid the fee installments.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court held that Epcon’s federal claims are barred by the statute of limitations because it bought the property subject to the special use condition more than three years before it finally filed this lawsuit. The court also affirmed the district court’s decision to decline supplemental jurisdiction over Epcon’s state-law claims. The court explained that the fact that the special use permit did not require and simply permitted Epcon to develop the land for the use described in the application is hardly noteworthy—permitting a particular use is an essential feature of any permit. Thus, when Epcon learned of the special use permit condition on its recently acquired land, its takings claim became actionable. View "Epcon Homestead, LLC v. Town of Chapel Hill" on Justia Law

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The Town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina (the “Town”) requires housing developers seeking a special use permit to set aside a portion of their developments for low-income residents or pay a fee in lieu of that condition. In 2015, Plaintiff initiated its purchase of property subject to the fee-in-lieu. Plaintiff paid the requisite fee installments, commenced the development project, and sold each parcel. After Plaintiff satisfied its final fee installment in March 2019, it brought this lawsuit under a state cause of action to recover the whole sum it had paid to the Town and alleged federal takings and due process violations. The district court never reached those claims because it determined that Plaintiff waited too long to pursue them. The district court dismissed the case under North Carolina’s three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. Plaintiff promptly appealed, asking the Fourth Circuit to hold that the statute of limitations on Plaintiff’s federal claims began instead when it paid the fee installments.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of those claims. Having disposed of Plaintiff’s federal claims, the court also affirmed the district court’s decision to decline supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s state-law claims. The court explained, Plaintiff first had reason to know of this injury no later than 2015. Thus, its claim that the permit condition violated its rights to just compensation and due process accrued at that point and extinguished three years later. By the time Plaintiff filed suit, the sun had set on its federal claims. View "Epcon Homestead, LLC v. Town of Chapel Hill" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Alive Church of the Nazarene, Inc. (the “Church”) purchased 17 acres of land — zoned primarily for agricultural use — on which the Church sought to conduct religious assemblies. After Defendant Prince William County, Virginia (the “County”), denied the Church’s request to worship on its property before the Church complied with the zoning requirements, the Church initiated a lawsuit in district court. By its Complaint, the Church has alleged six claims against the County — three claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and three federal constitutional claims. For reasons explained in its Memorandum Opinion of November 2021, the district court dismissed those claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that allowing religious institutions to conduct worship services does not further the purpose of the Agricultural Zoning Ordinance — that is, to promote farming. Specific to the Church, allowing services would not increase its ability to continue farming its land. Accordingly, the court wrote it cannot agree with the Church that it is similarly situated to farm wineries and limited-license breweries with regard to the Ordinance. The Church has failed to meet its initial burden of proof by providing a similarly situated comparator with which it has been treated unequally, and has thereby failed to state an RLUIPA equal terms claim. View "Alive Church of the Nazarene, Inc. v. Prince William County, Virginia" on Justia Law

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Five adjacent Burtonsville, Maryland parcels are restricted from receiving sewer service. Several previous attempts to obtain approval of water and sewer category change requests were unsuccessful. The owners' alternative plan was to sell to a religious organization. They believed that land-use regulations must submit to “[c]hurch use [which] cannot be denied.” They entered into a contract with Canaan, contingent on the approval of the extension of a public sewer line for a new church. Such an extension required amendment of the Comprehensive Ten-Year Water Supply and Sewerage Systems Plan, which involves the Montgomery County Planning Board, the County Executive, the County Council, public hearings, and the Maryland Department of the Environment.Following denial of their requests, the owners sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of the claims. The land has been bound by decades of regulations restricting development for both religious and non-religious purposes. The parties were aware of the difficulties in developing the property when they entered into the contract; they could not have a reasonable expectation of religious land use. The restrictions are rationally related to the government’s interest in protecting the region’s watershed. View "Canaan Christian Church v. Montgomery County" on Justia Law

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Victory Temple, affiliated with a Nigerian evangelical church, was founded in 1996. Victory’s membership grew from about 500 to more than 2,000 members. In 2018, Victory purchased the Property, intending to build a church with a seating capacity of up to 2,000. The zoning permits a church facility as a by-right use. An engineering firm concluded that building a church on the Property was entirely feasible. The Property was in the County’s water and sewer Category 5, an area planned for a future community water and sewer system, and required an upgrade to Category 4 to be developed. Victory submitted an application for a category change; the city manager recommended approval, emphasizing that many nearby parcels were already in Category 3. The Bowie City Council recommended denial. Residents expressed concerns about traffic safety, declining property values, and “light pollution.” The Transportation Committee voted to deny the Application. The County Council denied the Application.The Fourth Circuit upheld an award of declaratory and injunctive relief in favor of Victory under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc, The legislative amendment to the Water and Sewer Plan sought by Victory constitutes a land-use regulation subject to RLUIPA and the denial violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. The County made “individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved.” Assuming traffic safety constitutes a compelling governmental interest, the County failed to show how that its denial of the Application was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. View "Redeemed Christian Church of God v. Prince George's County" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Zito purchased a beachfront house and lot on Nags Head (a barrier island). In 2016, the house burned down. The lot is governed by North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA): buildings with less than 5,000 square feet must be set back at least 60 feet or 30 times the local rate of erosion, whichever is farther, from the vegetation line. Buildings of less than 2,000 square feet built before June 1979 fall under a grandfather provision, requiring a setback of only 60 feet from the vegetation line. The Zito property qualifies for the grandfather provision but is set back only 12 feet from the vegetation line. In 2018, the coastline by the property eroded at an average rate of six feet per year. Experts indicate that coastal erosion and rising sea levels could cause the property to be underwater by 2024. The permit officer denied Zito’s application to rebuild The Coastal Resources Commission denied a variance, informing Zito of the right to appeal in state superior court.Zito filed suit in federal court, arguing that CAMA’s restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional taking. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Commission qualifies as an arm of the state subject to the protection of sovereign immunity; the Eleventh Amendment bars Fifth Amendment taking claims against states in federal court where the state’s courts remain open to adjudicate such claims. View "Zito v. North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission" on Justia Law

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Skidmore’s West Virginia home sits 70-80 feet west of Norfolk’s railroad track, across Loop Creek. In 2001, Norfolk installed a culvert to drain surface water from its tracks into Loop Creek near Skidmore’s home. According to Skidmore, the water streaming from the culvert caused soil erosion and threatened the foundation of her home. Skidmore sued Norfolk in state court, alleging negligence, private nuisance, and trespass.Norfolk obtained a survey and deeds revealing that, in 1903, Norfolk obtained a right of way extending across Loop Creek, over part of the land on the other side. Part of Skidmore’s house sits atop the land over which the right of way runs. Norfolk asserted an affirmative defense that Skidmore lacked standing because she had no right to exclude Norfolk from the land. Skidmore amended her complaint to add claims for adverse possession and prescriptive easement (quiet title claims). Norfolk removed the case to federal court, arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act completely preempts the quiet title claims. The district court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.The Fourth Circuit vacated. While 49 U.S.C. 10501(b) “entirely displaces” Skidmore’s quiet title claims, a conclusion that complete preemption applies means that the court has jurisdiction over ostensibly state-law claims. On remand, the court must convert Skidmore’s quiet title claims into claims under the Termination Act and may permit Skidmore to amend her complaint to clarify the scope of her Termination Act claims. View "Skidmore v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that three local zoning ordinances are constitutional under the Takings Clause and the Due Process Clause, and that Clayland's equitable claims are moot. In this case, Bill No. 1214 reduced the permissible density of residential properties from four units per acre to one unit per two acres and prohibited subdividing any existing parcel into more than one additional lot. Bill No. 1229 established seven tier classifications related to "the type of subdivision and the kind of wastewater treatment system planned for each subdivision type." Bill No. 1257 extended Bill No. 1214's restrictions on Village Center zones (including the decreased density of residential units and the limitations on new subdivisions) until Talbot County "adopt[ed] . . . comprehensive rezoning and land use regulations regarding density . . . pursuant to the County's comprehensive plan."The court concluded that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 do not constitute a taking where the balance of the Penn Central factors ultimately favors the County. The court explained that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 were public-benefit regulations that did not deprive Clayland of all development potential and—most significantly, and perhaps even decisively—did not divest Clayland of any vested rights. The court also concluded that Bill Nos. 1214, 1257, and 1229 do not constitute a substantive due process violation. Finally, the court concluded that Clayland's equitable claims are moot. View "Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC v. Talbot County" on Justia Law