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Hatfield v. The Board of Supervisors of Madison County

Supreme Court of Mississippi

August 10, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/08/2016







         ¶1. "'[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.'"[1] And if the ordinance's application is "fairly debatable, " the decision of the Board of Supervisors must be affirmed.[2] 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.

         ¶2. 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.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3. 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.

         ¶4. According to Hatfield, in October 2013, he was sued by the Deer Haven Owners Association (DHOA).[3] The claim stemmed from his supposed violation of subdivision covenants that prohibited keeping or raising fowl[4] 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."

         ¶5. 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 Board).

         ¶6. 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.

         ¶7. 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 or capricious.

         ¶8. 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.


         ¶9. 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.

         ¶10. 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.

         ¶11. 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.

         ¶12. 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.[5]

         ¶13. 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.

         I. The Board's Decision

         ¶14. 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 Districts."

         A. ...

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