Zone Changes

A zone change is simply an act of the local legislative body, in our case, the Metro Council, which changes the zoning ordinance so that the zoning designation is differeent from the way it was. For example, a change might make what was once residential property commercial. There are a large number of zoning designations here in Nashville, and as a result, the level of complexity about what can be and cannot be done in a particular zone district bears careful scrutiny.

Usually, zone changes are sensitive to political pressures. The first person the applicant will talk to is the local council person. Without his/her support, the application will go nowhere. However, because of the political sensitivity of this topic, the council member will almost immediately get in touch with whatever local neighborhood organization that might be in existence in the community. Generally, the applicant must get at least grudging approval of the neighbors. Otherwise, a council member who must stand for election every four years is not likely to buck 50 people who might vote against the candidate next time out.

Since zone changes are legislative in nature, they are entitled to special protections under the law and are very difficult to challenge legally. Generally speaking, unless the Council has acted totally (and I mean totally) beyond what is generally accepted as reasonable (that drat word!), no court will invalidate its action.

The legal standard is that the legislative action must rationally relate to some legitimate governmental objective. That bit of lawyer-speak converts to: "It won't be declared invalid if there is any reason at all to support it." It's a pretty poor lawyer who can't come up with at least some explanation for just about anything, and that's about all it takes. A recent example of the tremendous judicial deference given to the legislative determination is found in Carter v Green County. In Carter, even though the zone change involved a fairly significant rezoning, from Agricultural to Heavy Industry, to permit the placement of a demolition landfill, the Court of Appeals nevertheless found no problem. The trial court had declared the rezoning invalid, but the appellate court reversed. This is extreme judicial deference to the local legislative determination, based on the theory that the voters can turn the rascals out (in the legislative body) if they are dissatisfied.

Note in Carter, that a planner testified that this change made good sense from a planning perspective. In fact, there were a number of experts who testified favorably to the project.

The testimony of a Community Planner with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development was that the location of the landfill was "acceptable", and he added "I certainly know a lot of other areas in the county that would be less acceptable." Studies by an engineering firm analyzed the site and set procedures for handling the waste, leachate, dust, fires, and possible seepage into underground water systems. An Environmental Specialist from the State Division of Solid Waste Management stated that the geological structure of the land was suitable for a landfill (shale and clay are not easily permeated by seepage that might enter the groundwater) and that the landfill met the requirements of its State permit. Collins testified that although his company does have the exclusive right to use the landfill, they planned on permitting access to others who applied to the company.
With this kind of evidence, no court is going to reverse the local legislative body. The court looks to see if there is any reasonable justification -- and this evidence is much more than that.

About the only way to successfully challenge a zone change is to check with the Metro Planning Commission, and see if it recommended the change. If it did not, there is at least some chance that the decision could be challenged. But, don't get your hopes up!

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