Appeals and Appeal Authorities

NOTE:  This summary is very simplified, and is provided for informational purposes.  Any questions on this topic should be directed to The Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.

May a Land Use Decision be Appealed?

In general, decisions of local governments that impact property owners may be appealed.  An applicant or property owner has the right to appeal a decision that directly impacts the application or property.  In most cases, neighboring property owners and other affected persons also have the right to appeal, even if the decision is favorable to the applicant.

What is an Appeal Authority?

The Utah Code requires that each local government that regulates zoning must appoint an “appeal authority” to hear appeals from zoning decisions.  Traditionally, the appeal authority has been a board of adjustment, and several cities and counties still have such boards.  However, an appeal authority may also be a hearing officer appointed to review decisions.

See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-701 (10-9a-701 to -708, Appeals) or 17-27a-701 (17-27a-701 to -708, Appeals)

Appeal authorities are authorized to consider appeals of administrative land use decisions, and may grant variances to zoning regulations. Appeal authorities may not amend land ordinances, ignore ordinances, or use “appeals” as a means of waiving required regulations.

Variances are discussed in a separate section.

What are “Legislative” and “Administrative” Decisions?

There is an important distinction between “legislative” decisions and “administrative” decisions.

Legislative decisions establish generally applicable policies for the government entity, including adoption or amendment of zoning ordinances and designating zoning classifications for neighborhoods.  Legislative decisions are made by a legislative body, and no other person or entity may make such decisions.

Administrative decisions, on the other hand, are determinations applicable to specific cases, and apply the general laws or policies established by legislative acts.  Administrative decisions are usually not made by a legislative body, but by staff members or other boards authorized to make such decisions.

How Much Time Do I Have to Begin an Appeal?

In most land use decisions, the deadline for filing appeals is determined by statute or ordinance.  The time to file an appeal may be as short as 10 days from the date of the decision.  If the deadline is missed, the right to appeal is usually lost, even if the land use decision is incorrect.

If you are considering an appeal, it is vitally important that you begin the process before the deadline has passed.  The safest course is to consult an attorney or contact the Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman as soon as possible once the decision has issued.

Whom Should I Appeal To?

The procedure for appeals is usually dictated by ordinance or statute.  It is important to remember that appellate procedure must be followed precisely. Failure to follow the required process may be grounds to dismiss the appeal.  Each local government should adopt appeal procedures, which may vary, although the following procedures generally apply:

  • Legislative Decisions and Ordinance Changes

Appeals of decisions by a legislative body, such as zoning changes and ordinance amendments, may be appealed to the district court.   Any person affected by a legislative act may appeal, which must be filed within thirty (30) days of the decision.

It should be remembered, however, that courts are highly deferential to the decisions made by legislative bodies—such as city councils and county commissions—and it is very difficult to overturn legislative actions.  A legislative decision will be upheld if it is shown that it is reasonably debatable that the action may promote the public welfare.

  • Decisions on Development Applications or Subdivision Applications

Decisions on specific applications are considered “administrative” rather than legislative and the appeal usually must be taken to the local appeal authority, although local ordinances may require hearings before other bodies.  The time to appeal such decisions is usually very short, sometimes as little as 10 days.  After the appeal authority makes a final ruling, the decision may be appealed to the district court.  An appeal to the court must be filed within 30 days.

  • Interpretations or Application of Local Ordinances

If a local government’s interpretation of its ordinances is disputed, there should be a process to appeal and review the interpretation.  Often, this process begins with a “formal” interpretation from a local government official.  That interpretation may usually be appealed to the entity’s appeal authority, and the appeal authority’s decision could ultimately be appealed to the district court.

  • Conditional Uses

Local ordinances may establish a review process for conditional use applications, which may go from a planning commission, to a legislative body, and then to an appeal authority.  Any affected person may appeal a decision on a conditional use permit.  After all administrative bodies have considered the appeal, the decision may be appealed to the district court.  Consult your local ordinances, or contact the Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman when considering an appeal of a conditional use permit application.

  • Takings Claims

State law requires that local governments have a process by which property owners may appeal actions raising constitutional takings issues.  An appeal using this process is not required, however, and a claim may be filed directly in disrtrict court.

  • Appeal Authority Decisions

Final decisions of an appeal authority, including variances or rulings on nonconforming uses, may be appealed to the district court.  Any affected person may appeal, which must be filed within thirty (30) days of the decision.  State law authorizes appeal authorities to review most administrative zoning decisions, and local governments must respect the decisions made by appeal authorities, although a local entity may appeal a decision to district court.  Local legislative bodies may not overrule appeal authorities.

  • Impact Fees

The Impact Fees Act provides that a local government may establish an administrative procedure to consider appeals of impact fees.  This administrative process may be a hearing officer or a board.  If such an administrative process is established, any challenges to impact fees must follow that process before a suit may be brought in district court.  If no administrative process is established, a lawsuit challenging the fee may be filed in district court.

  • Building and Health Codes

Local governments often have boards to consider appeals of building and health code interpretations.  If such a board is in place, an appeal may need to start there.

What Does “Exhaust Administrative Remedies” Mean?

Before an appeal may be filed in a district court, all required administrative hearings and appeals must be completed, or “exhausted.”  If an appeal authority is authorized to review a land use decision, then the appeal must be taken to the appeal authority before it can be brought to district court, regardless of the magnitude or importance of the issues involved.

See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-801; or 17-27a-801 (Appeals to District Court)

How is the Record of the Proceedings Created?

The “record of the proceedings” refers to all evidence presented to the land use authority and the appeal authority reviewing the decision.  The record includes all documents submitted, as well as the transcripts of any public hearings on the matter.  Hearings should be recorded by the local government, so they can be transcribed if necessary.

Why is the Record of the Proceedings so Important?

The Utah Code mandates that a district court may only review the record created by the administrative appeal process, and may not accept new evidence (except in very limited cases).  The court, in other words, will not consider the appeal as a new trial, but will only review the evidence that was presented to the administrative bodies.  If an issue is not raised or decided upon in the administrative process, it may not be considered by a district court, regardless of the issue’s importance.

What Standard of Review is Used by District Courts?

When reviewing land use decisions, a district court presumes that the decision is valid, and will overturn it only if the decision is “arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.”  A determination of whether a decision is arbitrary and capricious is based on all evidence included in the administrative record, both favorable and unfavorable.

A decision is “illegal” if it exceeds the local government’s authority, or if the required procedures were not followed to make the decision.

A legislative decision is not arbitrary and capricious if it is “reasonably debatable” that the decision could promote the public welfare.  It is not necessary to show that the decision actually promotes the public welfare, or is the best alternative, as long as it is reasonably debatable that the public could benefit.  Reviewing courts show great deference to the decisions made by legislative bodies.

An administrative decision is not arbitrary and capricious if it is supported by “substantial evidence” in the record of the proceedings.  Substantial evidence is defined as “that quantum and quality of relevant evidence that is adequate enough to convince a reasonable mind to support a conclusion.”  A determination of whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision considers all evidence on the record, both favorable and unfavorable.  Courts concede some deference to an administrative body’s decision, but not as much as that given to a legislative decision.

See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-801(3); or 17-27a-801(3)

How Can the Ombudsman Help?

The Ombudsman Office can help citizens understand the appeal process, and the specific administrative procedures that may be necessary.   Please contact the Ombudsman for more information.

Cases on Land Use Appeals

Bradley v. Payson City–Standards of review for legislative and administrative decisions

Cedar Mountain Environmental, Inc. v. Tooele County–Standing requirements under LUDMA are the same as traditional and alternative standing tests

City of Grantsville v. Tooele City–Establishing standing, or the right to pursue a claim in court

Davis County v. Clearfield City–Local government may not alter appeal process mandated by state statute

Fox v. Park City–Appellate review of land use decisions, what makes a decision arbitrary, capricious, or illegal

Gillmor v. Summit County–Appeal of land use decision may include any challenge to the decision or the law’s validity

Harmon City v. Draper City–Distinction between legislative and administrative functions

Pacific West Communities v. Grantsville City–Issues and evidence not presented in administrative hearings will not be considered by a court

Patterson v. American Fork –Administrative remedies must be exhausted before a decision can be challenged in court

Petersen v. Riverton City–Discussion of appeals and right to file lawsuit to pursue claims arising from a land use decision

Salt Lake City Mission v. Salt Lake City–Administrative remedies must be exhausted before a land use decision may be challenged in court.

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