Zoning and mobile-home parks

In 1987, the village of Lodi, near Cleveland, passed a zoning ordinance that impacted the use of property in mobile-home parks. Two companies – Sunset Estate Properties, L.L.C., and Meadowview Village, Inc. – each own property in Lodi on which they operate licensed mobile-home parks.

Both of the properties are in areas that are currently zoned as R-2 Districts, which do not permit mobile-home parks. But these mobile-home parks existed prior to the passage of the ordinance that created the R-2 Districts, which caused a conflict that ultimately came before us – the Ohio Supreme Court.

The 1987 ordinance stated that when a nonconforming use has been discontinued for six months, that discontinuance is conclusive evidence of the intention to legally abandon the nonconforming use.

What is “nonconforming use?” There are occasions when a particular land use predates a zoning ordinance. In such cases, the owner’s use of the property remains legal but is considered a “nonconforming use.” So, the mobile-home parks owned by Sunset and Meadowview – which existed prior to the ordinance – were considered nonconforming use.

The final sentence of the 1987 ordinance, which is specific to mobile homes, states that the absence or removal of a mobile home from its lot constitutes discontinuance from the time of removal.

Thus, when a tenant left one of the mobile-home-park lots and the lot was vacant for longer than six months, Lodi would refuse to reconnect water and electrical service when a new tenant wanted to rent the lot. As a result, Sunset and Meadowview were not able to rent these lots and essentially lost a property right on that portion of their property.

The two companies filed a complaint against Lodi requesting a declaration from the trial court that the ordinance is unconstitutional and constitutes a taking of their properties. But the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Lodi.

The court concluded that the ordinance is not unconstitutional on its face or as applied, that it does not constitute an unreasonable interference with the owners’ property rights as guaranteed by the United States and Ohio Constitutions, and that the ordinance does not constitute a taking of their property.

The companies appealed. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment, concluding that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face.

After that, Lodi filed an appeal with us, asserting this proposition of law: A zoning ordinance which precludes a property owner from re-establishing a nonconforming use after a specified period of nonuse does not violate the due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution.

The pertinent section of the Ohio Constitution states: “Private property shall ever be held inviolate, but subservient to the public welfare.” Over the years, our court has consistently approved the constitutionality of comprehensive zoning ordinances, and we have recognized zoning as a valid legislative function of a municipality’s police powers.

In a case from 1984, our court stated that a “strong presumption exists in favor of the validity of an ordinance.” The basis for “this presumption is that the local legislative body is familiar with local conditions and is therefore better able than the courts to determine the character and degree of regulation required.”

As mentioned earlier, when a land use predates a zoning ordinance, the property owner’s use of the property remains legal but is considered a nonconforming use. In a 1953 case called Akron v. Chapman, our court said, “Zoning ordinances contemplate the gradual elimination of nonconforming uses within a zoned area, and, where an ordinance accomplishes such a result without depriving a property owner of a vested property right, it is generally held to be constitutional.”

In Chapman, our court recognized that the definition of “property” includes the unrestricted possession, use, enjoyment, and disposal of lands. And “anything which destroys any of these elements of property, to that extent destroys the property itself. The substantial value of property lies in its use. If the right of use is denied, the value of the property is annihilated and ownership is rendered a barren right.”

Lodi argued that it enacted the ordinance in order to protect property values and encourage the development of surrounding properties, and that its goals for the ordinance were permissible and that the ordinance was unquestionably rationally related to these goals.

To support its assertions, Lodi cited a case from 1995 which noted that courts have “consistently recognized that a municipality may properly exercise its zoning authority to preserve the character of designated areas in order to promote the overall quality of life within the city’s boundaries.”

But that case provides little support to Lodi’s position. It’s true that our court upheld the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance at issue in that case, but the property owners were seeking to change the zoning law to accommodate their desire to develop the property. In Lodi’s case, the owners are seeking to maintain a legal nonconforming use.

The Fourteenth Amendment and the Ohio Constitution both provide that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The last sentence in Lodi’s zoning ordinance attributes a tenant’s abandonment of a lot within a mobile-home park to the park’s owner. In so doing, we concluded that the provision impermissibly deprives the owner of the right to continue the use of its entire property in a manner that was lawful prior to the establishment of the zoning ordinance.

In accordance with the due-process clauses of the United States and Ohio Constitutions, this impermissible deprivation of the vested private-property rights of mobile-home-park owners defeats Lodi’s argument that the provision is rationally related to its legitimate goals of protecting property values and encouraging development.

Thus, by a six-to-one vote, we concluded that the last sentence of the ordinance is an unconstitutional deprivation of a property right and may not be applied. We therefore affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment and sent this case back to the trial court to determine what remedy is appropriate.

By Paul Pfeifer

Court of Appeals

Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Ohio Court of Appeals.