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Common Pleas Court Must Defer To Zoning Appeals Board’s Interpretation of Ambiguous Language in Zoning Ordinance

A common pleas court ruling that authorized the construction of a helipad at Cleveland’s Fairview Hospital has been reversed by the Eighth District Court of Appeals, based on the appellate court’s holding that a judge reviewing ambiguous language in a zoning ordinance must defer to the judgment of a zoning appeals board.

In a 3-0 decision announced October 4, the court of appeals reversed a ruling in which a Cuyahoga County common pleas court judge overruled a finding by the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that construction of a helipad at Fairview, which is located on the west side of the city in the Kamm’s Corners neighborhood, was not permitted based on the area’s zoning as a Local Retail Business District.

The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which owns and operates Fairview, filed an administrative appeal challenging the BZA’s ruling. The common pleas court issued a journal entry and opinion holding that, contrary to the BZA’s interpretation of the applicable city zoning ordinance,  a helipad was a “permitted accessory use” in an area zoned as a Local Retail Business District.

In an opinion written by Judge Kenneth A. Rocco, the Eighth District found that the trial court abused its discretion when it impermissibly substituted its judgment for that of the BZA in interpreting provisions of the zoning code that were subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, and were therefore ambiguous.

Judge Rocco wrote: “Relying on C.C.O.343.01(b)(1) (a Cleveland city ordinance), the trial court determined that because a hospital is a permitted use in a Multi-Family District, then it is also a permitted use in a Local Retail Business District. The court then determined (and the Clinic agrees) that a helipad is ‘customarily incident to’ a hospital, and that, therefore, a helipad is a permitted accessory use in a Local Retail Business District.”

“In contrast ... (r)elying on C.C.O. 343(b)(8).01 (a different city ordinance), the BZA found that under the zoning statute, a helipad was not a permissible accessory in a Local Retail Business District.  Specifically, the BZA determined that the evidence set forth that a helipad was not ‘normally required for the daily local retail business needs of the resident locality only,’ and so a helipad was not ‘an accessory use as of right in a Local Retail Business District.’”

“Because the ordinance is ambiguous, the trial court was required, as a matter of law, to give due deference to the BZA’s interpretation of the ordinance. The trial court failed to do so, and so it abused its discretion in reversing the BZA’s decision.”

Cleveland Clinic Foundation v. Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals, 2012-Ohio-4602
Civil Appeal From: Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is:  Reversed and Remanded
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: October 4, 2012

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