Zoning Board of Appeals reverses course

by David
(West Bloomfield,MI, Oakland)

Visitor Question: The code is clear in West Bloomfield, MI. It states that if you own multiple lots and sell off a nonconforming lot (70 foot minimum width) you can not build on that lot.

So I have an empty lot next to me that met that condition. It is only 50 feet wide. This situation was self induced when the owner sold off his other 2 lots and kept the 50 footer.

So he went before the ZBA (Editors' note: Zoning Board of Appeals, or Zoning Board of Adjustment in other locations) to ask to build on it. I started a petition and got 19 of my neighbors to sign a petition to not allow the owner to build on the nonconforming lot.

The ZBA members agreed 4 to 1 to deny...but don't vote as the petitioner tabled that to another time. Five months later it came to the ZBA again. This time he had a lawyer, and the ZBA members that were all going to vote to deny flip flopped and voted for the petitioner to build on this lot.

He created the hardship himself, which the code states can't result in a variance. I bought my home with empty lots north and south and was told no one could build on them. Now this is pure and simple; the ZBA members got bought off for their votes.

What can I do to stop this? And how can the ZBA members not honor the code as written that states if someone sells off a nonconforming lot, that lot can't be built on?

Editors Reply: To answer your question, the only thing you can probably do to stop this is to go to court and fight it. (We have to qualify our answer by saying "probably" since it is always possible that a local zoning ordinance would establish a different procedure. But in 99.9 percent of all U.S. jurisdictions, the only way to appeal a decision on the actions of a board of appeals or adjustment is to appeal to a court. Your city, township, or county government cannot overrule this board, which is set up to act independently.

It sounds as though the ordinance is very clear and explicit that this kind of exception is not allowed, and that a self-created situation where a lot does not conform to the zoning ordinance should not result in a variance. Again, the exact wording of all parts of your local zoning ordinance are critically important here, but from what you are telling us, it certainly sounds as if you would have the law on your side.

The real question then becomes how much money, time, and effort you want to spend to fight this. One positive suggestion we have for you is for you to check with each person who signed your original petition to see if they are willing to contribute money to hire an attorney. Or perhaps you have an attorney neighbor who signed your petition who could give you some preliminary advice on your likelihood of success.

It certainly sounds as if this board has overstepped its bounds considerably. You can and should make sure that your city or township officials know the specifics of your situation, as your chief elected official or your entire council have to appoint members to this board. They should be vitally interested in appointing board members who could not be bribed, who have backbone when faced with an applicant who comes with an attorney, and who have high ethical standards.

In the meantime, sadly, about the only realistic thing we can recommend is to think carefully about how many resources you want to devote to this fight and then engage a local attorney if you decide you cannot accept the situation.

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