OF JUDGMENT: 03/08/2016
COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. STEVE S. RATCLIFF, III JUDGE.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: ARLIN GEORGE HATFIELD, III (PRO SE)
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: KATHERINE BRYANT SNELL.
COURT ATTORNEYS: STEVEN H. SMITH KATHERINE BRYANT SNELL A.
WALLER, C.J., KING AND MAXWELL, JJ.
"'[I]n construing a zoning ordinance, unless
manifestly unreasonable, great weight should be given to the
construction placed upon the words by the local
authorities.'" And if the ordinance's application
is "fairly debatable, " the decision of the Board
of Supervisors must be affirmed. Here, the Madison County
Board of Supervisors (the Board) found Arlin George Hatfield,
III-who raised "chickens, guineafowl, and
ducks"-violated a Madison County Zoning Ordinance (the
Ordinance) section, which did not expressly permit raising
and keeping fowl in residential neighborhoods. The
Board's decision was consistent with an earlier
interpretation and application of the Ordinance section.
After review, based on the Board's prior treatment of a
similar matter and its construction of the applicable zoning
law, we find the Board's decision was neither arbitrary
nor capricious. And the interpretation was certainly not
"manifestly unreasonable." This Court also finds
that, in light of the entire Ordinance, Hatfield had
sufficient notice that keeping or raising fowl on residential
property was prohibited. We therefore affirm the Madison
County Circuit Court's ruling, which affirmed the
Board's interpretation and decision.
Facts and Procedural History
In July 2012, Hatfield purchased Lot 1 in Phase 1 of Deer
Haven subdivision in Madison, Mississippi. At some point
after purchasing the lot, Hatfield began raising chickens,
guineafowl, and ducks on the property.
According to Hatfield, in October 2013, he was sued by the
Deer Haven Owners Association (DHOA). The claim stemmed from his
supposed violation of subdivision covenants that prohibited
keeping or raising fowl and constructing structures-such as
pens and coops-without DHOA approval. Hatfield alleges that
while this lawsuit was pending, DHOA contacted and involved
Scott Weeks, an administrator with the Madison County
Planning and Zoning Department. Weeks inspected
Hatfield's property on February 18, 2015, and found
Hatfield was violating the "R-1 Residential
District" section of the Madison County Zoning
Ordinance. The violation was based on Hatfield "keeping
or raising poultry, " which is neither a permitted nor a
conditional use under R-1 zoning. Weeks followed up his
inspection with a letter, dated March 13, 2015. The letter
detailed the violation and advised Hatfield to remove the
"chickens, guineafowl, and ducks."
Weeks inspected Hatfield's property twice more. His April
1 and April 13 visits revealed Hatfield had not removed the
fowl. Again, Weeks sent a followup letter, this one dated
April 13, 2015. The letter explained that, because Hatfield
had failed to correct the violation, the matter would be
presented to the Madison County Board of Supervisors (the
On June 1, 2015, the Board heard presentations and
recommendations from Weeks, County Attorney Mike Espy,
Hatfield's counsel, and DHOA's lawyer. After
considering the arguments, the Board voted unanimously to
accept Weeks's and Espy's findings and
recommendations. The Board found Hatfield had violated R-1
zoning by keeping or raising around sixty "ducks, geese
and other fowl" on his Deer Haven lot. The Board found
these acts were neither a permitted nor a conditional use
under R-1 zoning. The Board also denied Hatfield's
request to continue to keep or raise fowl on the property.
Hatfield filed a Notice of Appeal and Intent to File Bill of
Exceptions on June 10, 2015. He filed his Bill of Exceptions
on August 19, 2015. In it, he argued the Board's decision
was arbitrary and capricious, not supported by substantial
evidence, and was based on an unconstitutionally vague
Ordinance section. The Board responded through its counsel,
insisting its decision was not arbitrary or capricious. The
Board urged its decision mirrored a previous similar ruling
in another matter-that keeping or raising fowl was not a
permitted or conditional use under R-1 zoning. And the
Ordinance section dealing with R-1 zoning clearly listed the
permitted uses, particularly when viewed in light of other
sections. Sitting as an appellate court, the circuit judge
found the Board's decision was "fairly debatable,
" supported by substantial evidence, and not arbitrary
Hatfield now appeals to this Court. He argues: (1) the
Board's decision was arbitrary, capricious, and
unsupported by substantial evidence, and (2) Section 601 of
the Madison County Zoning Ordinance is unconstitutionally
vague and therefore void.
Zoning issues are "legislative in nature."
Thomas v. Bd. of Supervisors of Panola Cty., 45
So.3d 1173, 1180 (Miss. 2010) (citing Luter v.
Hammon, 529 So.2d 625, 628 (Miss. 1988)). And
"[z]oning ordinances should be given a fair and
reasonable construction, in the light of their terminology,
the objects sought to be obtained, the natural import of the
words used in common and accepted usage, the setting in which
they are employed, and the general structure of the zoning
ordinance as a whole." City of Gulfport v.
Daniels, 231 Miss. 599, 604-05, 97 So.2d 218, 220
(1957). A key function of a county board, city council, or
board of aldermen is to interpret its zoning
ordinances. And "[t]he cardinal rule in construction of
zoning ordinances is to give effect to the intent of the
lawmaking body." Columbus & Greenville Ry. Co.
v. Scales, 578 So.2d 275, 279 (Miss. 1991) (citations
omitted). Local boards are in the most advantageous position
to interpret and apply local ordinances. That is why
"[i]n construing a zoning ordinance . . . great weight
should be given to the construction placed upon the words by
the local authorities." Id. (citations
omitted). But our courts are certainly not bound by a
board's interpretation of a local ordinance if it is
"manifestly unreasonable." Id. And we will
reverse in such instances.
As to the ordinance's application, this Court will affirm
a board's zoning decision unless it is clearly
"arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, illegal, or
without [a] substantial evidentiary basis." Drews v.
City of Hattiesburg, 904 So.2d 138, 140 (Miss. 2005)
(citing Perez v. Garden Isle Cmty. Ass'n, 882
So.2d 217, 219 (Miss. 2004); Carpenter v. City of
Petal, 699 So.2d 928, 932 (Miss. 1997)). If a
board's zoning decision is "fairly debatable[,
]" we will not reverse it. Id.
Justice Coleman recognizes this Court's precedent but
advocates we change the law and pursue a new approach. What
he prefers is a purely de novo review, giving absolutely no
deference to interpretations by local governing boards. We
disagree with the wisdom of this suggestion. We also see no
constitutional infirmity in our present law.
The first problem with this suggested change is that it
overlooks the practical reality that, to resolve zoning
issues, local governing boards must interpret
ordinances to apply them. If we were to accept this
logic to its ultimate conclusion, local boards would have to
stop and run to the courthouse for guidance every time an
ordinance-interpretation question arises.
Second, Mississippi's law does not run afoul of Sections
1 and 2 of our Constitution. The Board is not overstepping
its bounds into the judiciary's role by interpreting
local ordinances. The Board is simply acting within its own
established role as creator and enforcer of local law.
Similarly, by giving deference to a local board's
interpretation, we are not ceding our judicial power. In the
cases that have applied a deferential standard of review,
this Court has never suggested we lack authority to reverse a
board's decision. Instead, what we have recognized is the
obvious-that a local board is in the best position to
interpret its own local ordinances. Thus, by giving great
weight to the Board's interpretation, we ensure we stick
to our constitutional role as the judiciary. And we restrain
our branch from becoming a super-municipal board-a role that
would certainly usurp the powers of the local governing body.
The Board's Decision
With this standard in mind, the Ordinance clearly defines the
permitted uses for each of the two relevant sections-A-1
zoning under Section 501 and R-1 zoning under Section 601.
A-1 zoning covers "Agricultural Districts, " while
R-1 zoning applies to "Residential Estate