“Zoning Regulations: Who Needs Them?” by Richard T. Ashe
Stone County does, now that a Judge has voided the County’s zoning regulations because, ironically enough, they failed to adequately zone and regulate development activities in the County.
On December 30, 2008, Associate Circuit Court Judge Carr Woods ruled that the Stone County Commission violated Missouri law by: (1) failing to divide the County into ‘zoning districts’; (2) allowing land-use changes and rezoning decisions to be made by non-elected officials as part of the plat approval process; (3) failing to approve residential subdivision plats within 30 days; and (4) charging a special-use permit fee that had not been officially approved by the County Commission. In addition to voiding the County’s current zoning regulations, the decision also required the County to credit the Plaintiff-developers tens of thousands of dollars in fees previously paid to the County.
a. Zoning Districts.
The most basic reason for having zoning laws is to separate residential property, commercial property and industrial property so that these different land uses do not adversely affect one another. These separate areas are called ‘zoning districts,’ and they restrict what kind of activities can occur in a given area. Once zoning districts are created, building regulations can then be adopted that are specifically suited to each zoning district. Ideally, zoning districts are created in a way that accounts for both past and future land use activities.
Under Missouri law, a County Commission cannot exercise its zoning powers unless the County is first divided into zoning districts. Stone County did not follow this rule when it adopted zoning regulations in 1995. Instead, it simply recognized the existence of all prior land use activities throughout the County, and then passed a single, county-wide building regulation for future land uses that required new buildings to be set-back a certain distance from property lines. No other building codes or regulations exist in the County.
Judge Woods’ ruling prevents the County from exercising its zoning powers until it adopts “a zoning scheme with original zoning districts for various classes and uses.”
b. Land-Use Changes.
When a developer or land owner in Stone County wants to sub-divide a parcel of land into residential lots, it must first get approval from the Stone County Planning and Zoning Department through the ‘plat approval process’. In short, the plat approval process requires the P&Z Department to review the development plat to make sure it abides by County building regulations. This job may be done by non-elected officials because, according toMissouri law, the act of comparing development plans to building regulations is not serious enough to require the voting public to hire and fire each person making the decision. Non-elected officials at the P&Z Department, however, are not permitted to make decisions that will modify a building regulation to suit a particular project, such as a land-use change request. According to Missouri law, the modification of building regulations is serious enough that voters should be able to hire and fire the persons making these decisions. The County Commission, therefore, is the only body legally able to decide requests for land-use changes.
Judge Woods found that these kinds decisions were often made in Stone County by the P&Z Department during the plat approval process. His ruling requires the County Commission to make these decisions, and prohibits the P&Z from making these decisions.
c. 30-Day Approval Period.
Missouri law requires that the plat approval process be completed within 30 days. Judge Woods’ ruling voids Stone County’s current plat approval process, which takes no less that 40 days to complete, and further states that plat approvals and other zoning requests not decide within 30 days are automatically approved.
d. Special Permit Fees.
Missouri law requires that a County Commission set the amount of each development-related fee, such as building permit fees, special use fees and plat filing fees. In Stone County, the Commission never actually approved the fees charged by the P&Z Department for condominium plats. As a result, Judge Woods voided this fee and ordered the County to credit the Plaintiffdeveloper for all such fees previously paid to the County.
e. Other Development Related Fees.
Missouri law also requires that all development-related fees be set at an amount that is reasonably related to the service provided by the County. Based on the evidence before the Court, Judge Woods was unable to determine whether or not all of the development-related fees charged by the County were reasonable.
If the County does not take the hint from Judge Woods and make certain that its fees are reasonably related to the services it provides, it is likely that this issue will be resolved by the next lawsuit faced by the County.