Board of Zoning Adjustment of the City of Huntsville v. Janet M. Watson: Where a landowner has self-created a hardship pertaining to zoning ordinances, this hardship cannot serve as the basis for seeking a zoning variance.
On August 12, 2016, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals decided the matter of Board of Zoning Adjustment of the City of Huntsville v. Janet M. Watson [Ms. 2150314], — So.3d — (Ala.Civ.App. 2016). The issue before the court was whether a self-inflicted hardship that runs with the land creates an undue hardship that should be remedied with a zoning variance.
The lot in question had previously been a part of a much larger parcel of land. The larger parcel was divided into a subdivision in 2002, with the subject parcel being carved out and retained by Watson. At the time this decision was made, Watson knew that the subject parcel did not conform with the R1-A zoning designation and would disallow residential construction from occurring on the property due to the lot size. Nevertheless, Watson was hoping to sell the parcel in the future when adjacent land was developed. Unfortunately for Watson, the adjacent land has never been developed.
In 2013, a prospective buyer, Cantrell, offered to purchase the subject parcel, contingent on Watson obtaining a variance from the zoning board that would allow residential construction on the property. Watson petitioned the zoning administrator for the City of Huntsville, who denied her request for a variance; she then appealed that decision to the Board of Zoning Adjustment of the City of Huntsville, who likewise deemed her land to be non-conforming and denied a variance.
Watson appealed to the Madison County Circuit Court, who overruled the Board and ordered that a variance be granted. The Board then appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, arguing that the variance being sought by Watson was based on a claim of “unnecessary hardship” that does not meet the definition of the term as applied by the courts. Specifically, the Supreme Court of Alabama has “repeatedly recognized that variances should be granted sparingly, and only under unusual and exceptional circumstances where the literal enforcement of the ordinance would result in unnecessary hardship.” Bd. of Zoning Adjustment for Fultondale v. Summers, 814 So.2d 851, 855 (Ala. 2001). The Board further argued that because Watson’s hardship was self-created, it could not serve as the basis for granting a variance.
The appellate court found the evidence to be undisputed that Watson had elected to create the subject parcel such that it would be too small to contain a house in accordance with the applicable zoning ordinance and that she had excluded the subject parcel from inclusion in the platted subdivision. It then held that there is no authority for the proposition that a property owner can self-create a hardship that would run with the land and then seek a variance under a claim of undue or unnecessary hardship. Moreover, Alabama law establishes affirmatively that a self-inflicted hardship cannot serve as a basis for a variance. As such, the trial court had erred in ordering a variance and the matter was remanded back to the trial court.