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Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Affirms Spilman Client's Win Against Unconstitutional Municipal Zoning Ordinance
October 15, 2020
Calvary Baptist Church successfully defended a trial court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional a municipal zoning ordinance. The case -- City of Morgantown v. Calvary Baptist Church, No. 18-1134 (W. Va. Sept. 29, 2020) -- marks the first time in nearly 40 years that a property owner has prevailed on this type of constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. Calvary's legal team was led by Spilman members Joseph V. Schaeffer and James A. Walls.
Local governments use their planning and zoning authority to shape development -- legislating everything from what development is allowed to where it can take place and what form it must take. The Calvary Baptist Church ruling reminds local governments that, while those legislative powers are broad, they are not unlimited. Under constitutional principles of substantive due process, planning and zoning ordinances cannot be arbitrary or unreasonable but, rather, must bear a substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals or general welfare.
Historically, local governments have argued that they comply with that substantive due process standard through the comprehensive planning process. And the municipality in the Calvary Baptist Church case relied in large measure on its comprehensive plan to justify its zoning. But the Supreme Court of Appeals held that a comprehensive plan is just one of seven factors that a trial court should consider:

1. The existing uses and zoning of nearby property;
2. The extent to which property values are diminished by the particular zoning restrictions;
3. The extent to which the destruction of property values of the plaintiff promotes the health, safety, morals or general welfare of the public;
4. The relative gain to the public, as compared to the hardship imposed upon the individual property owner;
5. The suitability of the subject property for the zoned purposes;
6. The length of time the property has been vacant as zoned, considered in the context of land development in the area in the vicinity of the property; and
7. The adopted comprehensive plan.

Of course, not every zoning dispute rises to the level of a constitutional violation: even after Calvary Baptist Church, local governments are given significant discretion and deference. But the Supreme Court of Appeals' opinion does set an outer limit that local governments and property owners alike should consider when evaluating their legal rights and obligations.
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Litigation James A. Walls