Special exception for commercial tree company

by Ellen b
(Warren ct)

Visitor Question: A commercial tree company has filed for a special exception next door to me in our rural residential town. It would be completely out of place. It would destroy our property investments and create noise and make using our outside porch and deck impossible. What are your suggestions?

Editors Reply: As we often do, we renamed your submission to help others in similar circumstances to find this page easier. But your title included the phrase "spot zoning," and that was very wise on your part.

This situation does resemble spot zoning because if successful, this request would mean plopping down a commercial land use in the middle of a residential area. Although there is no precise definition of spot zoning, courts think they know it when they see it, and they consider it illegal.

Now in your description you used the term special exception instead of rezoning, so in the rest of our answer, we will assume that someone filed a petition for a special exception. Special exception is usually a term that means the same thing as a zoning variance, so if you are not familiar with what that is, you might read our page about zoning variances.

The big point on that page about variances is that they really should not be granted unless the physical characteristics of the property are unusual in some respect, making complying with the letter of the zoning law impossible or extremely impractical. If the special exception being sought in your location is the same thing as a zoning variance, your argument could focus on the fact that there is nothing difficult about complying with the zoning law on the property next door--it's just that the property owner wants to use a back door way to establish a land use that would not be permitted any other way.

Since every zoning ordinance in the country is different, of course it may be possible that the special exception being sought is actually the same thing as a rezoning, even down to the process that will be decided whether or not the special exception will be granted. If that is the case, then you can pick up many tips on our page about opposing a rezoning.

We are sorry to send you all over our website, but we should not duplicate the good information that is available on those other pages.

Either way, whether more like a variance or more like a rezoning, your best action is to get together with any other neighbors and present a united front with whatever public body must decide on this action. (It is also possible that something called a special exception would be decided administratively by a city, township, or county employee, so if that is the case, you can and should still make an argument to the employee.)

Yes, it sounds obnoxious to have a commercial tree service headquarters next door, but it is in your best interest to find out as much as you can about what the company plans to do there. Will it be truck parking only, with maybe only a small shed used as an office or dispatch location? Or you might be facing a full-fledged tree operation, with wood chip outside storage, dumping of chips and sawdust, storage of bigger limbs, grinding down to a finer diameter than what is possible in the field.

To learn these kinds of details, you need to ask either the government official or a representative of the company. If you need to call the company, remain business-like and civil at all times, because if they are successful, you need to establish a positive working relationship to help you deal with problems later. But if and when you contact the company, you also should remain very firm and describe to the company any realistic threats to mobilize all your neighbors in opposition. There is even a small chance that you can persuade the company not to locate there, because no business with valuable trucks and equipment to store outdoors really wants to be in a neighborhood hostile to its existence.

By the way, be persistent in trying to talk to the company. They really will not want to talk with you probably; usually businesses will think the neighbors are going to be a problem. But if you keep trying, most business owners will figure out they have to deal with you sometime.

By talking directly with the tree service, you might even be able to work out some concessions on their part, if their application is successful. For instance, you might get some agreements on operating hours, noise, fencing, screening with nice trees or plant materials, truck traffic patterns, and so forth.

We hope you are successful in fighting the special exception. It is unfortunate that such an application would even be accepted, but often towns allow any and every application that someone wants to pay to make. Yes, this resembles spot zoning, and there are certainly much better location choices than next door to a residence. I hope the community members who serve on your board of appeals, planning commission, or town council can see that this is a bad precedent.

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