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Supreme Court Rules Owner of Land Adjacent to Rezoned Property May Have Standing to Challenge Rezoning Through Declaratory Judgment Action

Even When Adjacent Property is Outside of Municipality That Adopted Rezoning

Owners of property adjacent to a proposed industrial coke processing plant can challenge rezoning.

Owners of property adjacent to a proposed industrial coke processing plant can challenge rezoning.

Owners of property adjacent to a proposed industrial coke processing plant can challenge rezoning.

Owners of property adjacent to a proposed industrial coke processing plant can challenge rezoning.

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that owners of property that is outside of a municipality, but is adjacent to property rezoned by that municipality, may pursue a declaratory judgment action to challenge the constitutionality of the rezoning if the owner pleads that he has suffered an injury caused by the rezoning that is likely to be redressed.

Applying that analysis to a Butler County case, the court partially reversed a decision of the Twelfth District Court of Appeals and remanded for further proceedings  a declaratory judgment action filed by Lori and Matthew Moore of Monroe against the City of Middletown. The Moores’ suit challenges the constitutionality of two Middletown city ordinances that rezoned a parcel of land adjacent to the Moore’s property from low-density residential to general industrial use.

In a 4-3 majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the court affirmed the 12th District’s holding that because the Moores’ property is outside of Middletown, they do not have legal standing to pursue a mandamus action to compel Middletown to appropriate (take) their land and compensate them for it. However the court rejected the 12th District’s holding that the Moores’ status as non-residents of Middletown also barred them from pursuing a declaratory judgment that the city’s rezoning ordinance violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions, and is therefore void.

The case arose from two ordinances enacted by the Middletown City Council in August 2008 as “emergency measures ... necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health, safety and general welfare.” Through those enactments, a 157-acre parcel of land within Middletown known as the Martin-Blake property was rezoned from low-density residential use to a general industrial zone, and a setback provision that had previously required all industrial activities to be at least 600 feet from a property line was amended.

The Moores, whose property is outside Middletown but immediately adjacent to the Martin-Blake property, filed suit in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas alleging that the rezoning ordinances were not enacted for the benefit of the public but rather for the private benefit of the city’s largest employer, AK Steel Corporation, to make way for an industrial plant that would use high temperature ovens to convert large quantities of coal into coke for use in AK’s steelmaking operations. They also alleged that the ordinances had been enacted as “emergency” legislation in order to prevent surrounding property owners from exercising their constitutional right to initiate a referendum on the rezoning.

The Moore’s complaint sought two different types of relief: 1) a writ of mandamus ordering Middletown to appropriate the Moore’s land and compensate them for its loss of value as a result of the rezoning; and 2) a declaratory judgment that the rezoning ordinances were unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions. 

Middletown filed a motion to dismiss both of the Moores’ claims based on lack of standing and failure to state a claim for which the court could grant them relief. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss. With regard to the appropriation claim, the trial court held that the Moores did not have standing to sue because the city’s rezoning ordinance did not directly impact their property, and also held that the relief they sought was unavailable because Middletown had no legal authority to appropriate property outside its city limits. With regard to the declaratory judgment portion of their complaint, the trial court held that the Moores had standing to pursue their constitutional claims, but had failed to allege sufficient facts in support of those claims to overcome the presumption that a duly enacted city ordinance is constitutional.

On review, the 12th District Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of both the mandamus and declaratory judgment claims.  In its opinion, the court of appeals held that, contrary to the trial court’s ruling, an owner of property outside of a municipality had no standing to pursue a declaratory judgment action challenging a zoning ordinance that addresses only property located within the borders of that municipality. The Moores sought and were granted Supreme Court review of the 12th District’s decision.

Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Chief Justice O’Connor affirmed the lower court rulings dismissing the Moores’ claims seeking appropriation and compensation for their land, and noted that those decisions were consistent with the Supreme Court’s holding earlier this year in Clifton v. Blanchester that an owner of property outside of a municipality does not have standing to bring a mandamus action to compel the municipality to appropriate land outside its borders.

In reversing the 12th District’s holding that the Moores also lacked standing to pursue their constitutional claims through a declaratory judgment action, the Chief Justice wrote: “Our precedent already makes clear that when a municipality rezones a property, the owner of the adjacent property has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the zoning decision if the property owner lives in the municipality. In Midwest Fireworks Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Deerfield Twp. Bd. of Zoning Appeals ...  (2001), we held that a plaintiff whose property was adjacent to property that had been rezoned to permit a fireworks manufacturer to construct a large building was an aggrieved person within the meaning of R.C. 519.15 and thus had standing to appeal the township’s decision to permit construction. ... We recognize that Midwest Fireworks concerned an administrative appeal rather than a declaratory-judgment action. But either vehicle is an appropriate means to challenge a zoning resolution, and we find its rationale instructive in cases in which property owners allege that their rights are adversely affected by a zoning ordinance targeting adjacent property.”

In reversing the portion of the Twelfth District’s decision that held the Moores lacked standing, Chief Justice O’Connor noted the nature of the rights at issue in the litigation.  “The rights to acquire, use, enjoy, and dispose of property are among the most revered in our nation’s law and traditions and are integral to our theory of democracy and notions of liberty. ... Zoning ordinances directly affect, and often limit, property owners’ rights. In most cases, those limitations are proper. But it must be remembered that a government’s authority to intrude on the individual’s right to property by enacting zoning ordinances is predicated on the proper use of police powers, for the public welfare. ... Property owners in Ohio therefore have the right to bring cases contesting the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance, including claims that the government action is clearly arbitrary and unreasonable and has no substantial relation to public health or safety.”

In analyzing property owners’ rights to challenge government rezoning actions like those taken by Middletown, the Chief Justice cited cases from Ohio and around the country.  “The seminal case on this subject, Cresskill v. Dumont ... (1954), is particularly instructive and helpful.  There, more than 50 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the view that a municipality’s responsibility for zoning halts at the municipal boundary lines.  ...  It held that: ‘ [at] the very least [the municipality] owes a duty to hear any residents and taxpayers of adjoining municipalities who may be adversely affected by proposed zoning changes and to give as much consideration to their rights as they would to [its own] residents and taxpayers ...  To do less would be to make a fetish out of invisible municipal boundary lines ... ’”

Cresskill quickly became the dominant view and was adopted by an array of diverse state courts ...
The weight of authority remains in accord with Cresskill, and we now adopt it as well. We decline to limit standing to residents of the municipality that zoned or rezoned the land. Walls do not separate our political subdivisions. We hold that property owners whose property is adjacent to property rezoned by a foreign municipality may use a declaratory-judgment action to challenge the constitutionality of the zoning action.”

Chief Justice O’Connor’s opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Robert R. Cupp and Yvette McGee Brown.  

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger entered an opinion, joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrence O’Donnell, in which she concurred in the majority’s holding that the Moores lacked standing to pursue their mandamus claim, but dissented from the court’s ruling that non-resident owners of adjacent property such as the Moores have standing to challenge the constitutionality of a municipal zoning ordinance through a declaratory judgment action.

Justice Lanzinger wrote: “(T)he Moores have not alleged that the rezoning and setback ordinances were directed to their property, and thus they lack standing to challenge them. At most the Moores have pled a potential diminishment in the value of their property as a result of Middletown’s rezoning. ... The Moores do not reside in Middletown, pay no city taxes, do not vote in city elections, and are not subject to the city’s jurisdiction.  I cannot see how they have asserted a redressable injury in order to claim a due process or equal protection violation. The ordinance is “applied to” property in which they have no interest. An enactment or amendment of a zoning ordinance by a city is the exercise of a legislative power that belongs exclusively to the governing body of the city. The corollary is that only those who are legally a part of the city may participate in that process. The parties cite no cases in which a court has sanctioned an effort to confer upon nonresident, legally disinterested individuals the right to participate in the legislative process of a city in enacting a local law.”

“I also do not believe that the Moores have shown that they have standing to challenge the ordinance through a declaratory action. ... In their claim for declaratory relief, the Moores failed to plead any direct and concrete injury that is different in kind or in degree from that suffered by the public in general. Instead, they simply assert that Middletown failed to follow proper procedures in adopting the zoning ordinance. ...   No Ohio decision until today has granted nonresidents standing to challenge a municipality’s zoning laws. In essence, this case represents an anticipatory nuisance claim in reaction to the coke plant proposed for the Martin-Bake property. While any landowner can sympathize with the situation the Moores find themselves in, sympathy is not sufficient to grant the Moores standing that is otherwise unprecedented in Ohio law.”

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2010-1363Moore v. Middletown, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3897.
Butler App. No. CA2009-08-205, 2010-Ohio-2962.  Judgment affirmed in part and reversed in part, and cause remanded.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Lundberg Stratton, O’Donnell, and Lanzinger, JJ., concur in part and dissent in part.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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