Utah Supreme Court
2013 UT 74 (Click for full text)
Filed: December 10, 2013
The Utah Supreme Court issued this opinion explaining its reasons for ordering that a referendum to overturn a zoning decision be placed on the ballot for the 2013 municipal elections.
At the request of the property owner, Saratoga Springs adopted a “site specific” rezoning in 2012. The change affected only one parcel, and did not create a new zoning classification (it changed the zoning from one class to another). It was, however, adopted by the City Council as an ordinance. A citizens group opposed the change, and acquired enough signatures to require a referendum to overturn the ordinance. The City agreed to place the referendum on the 2013 ballot, but the property owner obtained an order from the district court enjoining the City from proceeding. The citizens group was not a party to the district court action, and did not participate, although they were aware of it. The City complied with the order, and the citizens group petitioned the Utah Supreme Court for an extraordinary writ, asking that the referendum be placed on the fall ballot. In August of 2013, the Supreme Court agreed with the citizens, and ordered that the referendum proceed. In the fall election, the voters approved the referendum, and the zoning change was overturned.
When the Court granted the extraordinary writ, it did not elaborate on its reasoning. This opinion provides the reasoning, and answers the arguments against the order.
The citizens group was able to petition for the extraordinary writ, because there was no other remedy available. Ordinarily, a petitioner must “exhaust all available avenues of appeal.” The citizens were not a party to the district court action, and they did not attempt to be joined, even though they were aware of the proceedings. Since they were not a party to that action, they could not appeal the decision. Given the short time frame before the election, the Court held that the citizens thus had no other recourse than an extraordinary writ. The property owners argued that the citizens group could have joined the district court action, and should thus be barred from pursuing the writ. The Court disagreed, and allowed the writ.
Turning to the referendum, the Court determined that the public’s right to exercise legislative authority through referenda or initiatives includes the right to overturn “site specific” zoning ordinances. The Utah Constitution establishes that legislative power may be exercised by the people through initiative or referendum. The Court reasoned that an ordinance which changes a zoning designation, even one which affects a single parcel, is a “new law,” and thus eligible for a voter referendum. by doing so, the Court abandoned earlier cases which had held that zoning decisions were not eligible for voter referenda.
The Court discussed the difference between legislative decisions, which make “new law” and involve “weighing broad, competing policy decisions;” and administrative decisions, which apply existing law and only involve individual persons or property. Because the zoning change was a new law made after weighing broad, competing policy consideration, it could be subject to a referendum initiated by citizens. Thus, any zoning change may be overturned by a voter referendum.
The Court distinguished zoning ordinances from conditional use permits and variances, explaining that the latter actions are examples of administrative decisions, because they apply existing law to individual circumstances.