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How to challenge the re-zoning of property in Michigan

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on June 8, 2016 Category: Detroit Land Use and Zoning, Land Use and Zoning, Michigan Land Use and Zoning

Michigan law provides that local governments have the power to re-zone property under a rather broad set of criteria.  Can a property owner challenge the re-zoning?  The answer is yes, but, be aware of the case law and its unique nuances when making the judicial challenge.


By way of background, the power to zone and rezone property is a legislative function.[1] Cities derive their zoning authority from state enabling statutes, such as the City and Village Zoning Act. [2] Courts have determined that a zoning ordinance, as an exercise of the police power, must bear a reasonable relationship to the public health, safety, or welfare.[3] Thus, a zoning ordinance is invalid if it fails to advance a legitimate governmental interest or if it is an unreasonable means of advancing a legitimate governmental interest.[4]  The test of the validity of a police power regulation requires a balancing of the public interest against the private interest.[5] It is important to note that a court will not reverse the decision of a City with respect to zoning simply because it does not agree with the local governmental body. There is a time-honored principle in law that courts do “not sit as a super-zoning commission,” since the laws of this state grant the people’s locally elected representatives decision-making authority regarding how their community will be developed and organized.

A corollary of this principle, is that zoning ordinances come to courts “clothed with every presumption of validity,” and that it is “the burden of the party attacking to prove affirmatively that the ordinance is an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction upon the owner’s use of his property.”[6] Although noting that a zoning body may not “with impunity abrogate constitutional restraints,” Courts have held that to successfully challenge a zoning ordinance it “must appear that the clause attacked is an arbitrary fiat, a whimsical ipse dixit, and that there is no room for a legitimate difference of opinion regarding its reasonableness.”[7] Under this deferential standard of review, successful challenges will be limited to “extreme” cases.[8] Even more bluntly, the Court posed this as the pivotal question to be answered by a reviewing court: The question always remains: As to this property, in this city, under this particular plan (wise or unwise though it may be), can it fairly be said there is not even a debatable question? If there is, we will not disturb.[9]

The extent of public need must be balanced against the degree of intrusion upon the private interest.[10] Thus where the public need addressed (i.e., the public interest advanced) by the zoning restriction is relatively small, a large intrusion on a landowner’s use of his land will not be deemed reasonable. Furthermore, while a zoning regulation, which substantially reduces the value of land, may not be confiscatory, the disparity in value between the land as zoned and the land if other uses were permitted is a factor to be considered in determining whether a zoning regulation is a reasonable exercise of the police power.[11]

Whether a zoning classification advances a city’s master plan is a factor in determining reasonableness.[12] It is, however, only one factor; it does not replace the balancing of interests required under an assertion of the police power. Some of the other factors to be considered are: the extent to which the goals of the master plan are advanced by the use limitations imposed on a given parcel of land; the stability of the master plan; the extent to which the master plan constitutes a commitment to a coherent development plan for the neighborhood which takes into account existing conditions and legitimate future expectations. While a master plan constitutes a general guide for future development, the validity of a zoning regulation must be tested by existing conditions.

The Supreme Court[13] set forth the two separate avenues of proof that a party may utilize in challenging a zoning ordinance on the basis that the land was not reasonably zoned in comparison to other possible zoning classifications: “The important principles require that for an ordinance to be successfully challenged plaintiffs prove: “‘First, that there is no reasonable governmental interest being advanced by the present zoning classification itself * * * or “‘Secondly, that an ordinance may be unreasonable because of the purely arbitrary, capricious and unfounded exclusion of other types of legitimate land use from the area in question.‘”[14]

The Court also summarized the four principles that courts are to utilize when reviewing a plaintiff’s challenge under either of the two methods of proof:

  1. The ordinance comes to us clothed with every presumption of validity.
  1. It is the burden of the party attacking to prove affirmatively that the ordinance is an arbitrary and unreasonablerestriction upon the owner’s use of his property. It must appear that the clause attacked is an arbitrary fiat, a whimsical ipse dixit, and that there is no room for a legitimate difference of opinion concerning its reasonableness.
  1. Michigan has adopted the view that to sustain an attack on a zoning ordinance, an aggrieved property owner must show that if the ordinance is enforced the consequent restrictions on his property preclude its use for any purposes to which it is reasonably adapted.
  1. The Court, however, is inclined to give considerable weight to the findings of the trial judge in equity cases. [15]

Thus, the case law regarding the validity of zoning ordinances can be summarized as follows:

When a local governing body validly enacts a zoning ordinance, the courts must take a deferential role in reviewing claims that such decisions are unreasonable and arbitrary. But, when a discrete zoning decision is made regarding a particular parcel of property–typically a decision involving an amendment or variance that results in allowing uses for specific land that are inconsistent with the overall plan as established by the ordinance–the courts will apply greater scrutiny.

Should you wish to discuss a challenge to re-zoning of land, please contact a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you with this issue.


[1] Schwartz v City of Flint, 426 Mich. 295, 307-308; 395 N.W.2d 678 (1986). City and Village Zoning Act, MCL 125.581 et seq. Paragon Properties Co v City of Novi, 452 Mich. 568, 574; 550 N.W.2d 772 (1996); Lake Twp v Sytsma, 21 Mich. App. 210, 212; 175 N.W.2d 337 (1970).

[2] MCL 125.581 et seq. Paragon Properties Co v City of Novi, 452 Mich. 568, 574; 550 N.W.2d 772 (1996); Lake Twp v Sytsma, 21 Mich. App. 210, 212; 175 N.W.2d 337 (1970).

[3] Janesick v Detroit, 337 Mich 549, 556; 60 NW2d 452 (1953); Brae Burn, Inc v City of Bloomfield Hills, 350 Mich. 425; 86 N.W.2d 166 (1957) and Kropf v City of Sterling Heights, 391 Mich. 139; 215 N.W.2d 179 (1974),

[4] Id.

[5] Janesick, supra, p 554.

[6] Hammond v Bloomfield Hills Building Inspector, 331 Mich. 551; 50 N.W.2d 155 (1951)

[7] Brae Burn, supra at 432.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 433.

[10] Pere Marquette R Co v Muskegon Twp. Board, 298 Mich 31, 36; 298 NW 393 (1941)

[11] Reibel v Birmingham, 23 Mich App 732; 179 NW2d 243 (1970)

[12] Biske v Troy, 381 Mich 611, 617-618; 166 NW2d 453 (1969)

[13] See, e.g., Charter Twp of Delta v Dinolfo, 419 Mich. 253, 268; 351 N.W.2d 831 (1984); Kropf, supra at 161-162; Bowman v City of Southfield, 377 Mich. 237, 246-247; 140 N.W.2d 504 (1966)

[14] Id. at 268

[15] Id. at 268

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