Administrative decisions require careful application to ordinance standards: Part 1

Base decisions only on explicit standards in the ordinance to avoid a challenge of being unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious.

The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA) requires that a zoning ordinance include standards to direct administrative decision makers in ruling on zoning applications that require discretion and judgment. This includes decisions on site plans, special land uses, planned unit developments, and variances. Strictly following the standards is a principal means for defending zoning decisions against charges of being unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious.

A zoning ordinance includes two types of standards, discretionary and nondiscretionary. With nondiscretionary standards, such as a setback, height or lot area standard (sometimes called a numerical standard), one can count, or measure, whether the standard is met. Finding whether or not nondiscretionary standards are met can be relatively black and white.

With discretionary standards, the administrative body or official has to exercise discretion, or judgment, in determining if the standard has been met. The following standard is discretionary:

The development that is the subject of the application for zoning approval shall not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of property in the immediate vicinity for the purposes permitted, nor substantially diminish or impair property values within the neighborhood, or the value of the natural environment.

Although some of the wording may appear vague, a careful reading will show that there are ways to determine whether this standard is met based on the specific facts in a particular case.

Zoning standards and uniform procedures help reduce the potential to make arbitrary decisions and increase the odds of making uniform, consistent decisions when similar situations arise. This is especially important, given the following:

  • The MZEA requires that if the requirements and standards for decisions are satisfied, the board, commission, or official must approve the request.
  • The role of the decision maker is to take into account the welfare of the entire community, not just those who may show up at a hearing.

A decision-making body has constitutional limitations such as due process and equal protection. But how does this work at the practical level when confronted with a roomful of angry people demanding that an application be denied? In these situations, review standards prove most useful. Decision makers must abide the review standards; they may not make up their own rules. This means that even though zoning decisions are discretionary, they can be consistent when the review standards are applied for each decision.

Following the standards helps prevent arbitrary decisions based on personal biases or opinions that lead to public dissatisfaction and distrust of the zoning process. It should be mentioned that a zoning decision that must be made with discretionary standards might best be reviewed and acted upon by an administrative body – the planning commission – because there are multiple decision makers and points of view. If the zoning case has only nondiscretionary standards, then it might be better reviewed and acted upon by an official (e.g. the zoning administrator) in order to streamline the review time (see Who should decide if a zoning permit is issued?).

The second part of this article describes the importance of a detailed record for an administrative decision and outlines the necessary four components of minutes of administrative bodies.

Questions about making administrative decisions can be directed to a Michigan State University Extension land use educator.

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