United States: Aesthetics And Land Use Regulations

Last Updated: March 11 2016
Article by John C. Cooke

Perhaps disappointing to those who enjoy debating architecture, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of a challenge to a historic district commission's approval of a house located across the street from the contesting property owner's home. Cherry v. Wiesner __ N.C. App. __, __ S.E. 2d ___(WL 611074)(February 16, 2016). The Court of Appeals held that the property owner failed to prove her standing to appeal the commission's decision.

A fair reading of the Court of Appeals' opinion is that the property owner failed to produce sufficient evidence to prove standing at the right time, but a broader understanding of the case shows that the relationship between land use regulations and aesthetics is complex, uncertain and evolving.

Background: Planned Communities and Governmental Land Use Regulations

Planned communities maintain their appearance by enforcing extensive land use restrictions contained in private covenants. In this context, the North Carolina Supreme Court evidences significant sensitivity to the risk that amendments might change the nature and character of a planned community. See e.g., Armstrong v. Ledges Homeowners Ass'n, Inc., 360 N.C 547(2006)(reasonableness of an amendment to restrictive covenants should be judged by, among other things, the "nature and character of the community.")

On the other hand, governmental regulation of aesthetics is uncertain and controversial:

  • 1959 - The North Carolina Supreme Court refuses to enforce a regulation based purely upon aesthetics
  • 1972 - The North Carolina Supreme Court notes a growing authority in other jurisdictions that police power includes regulation of property for aesthetic reasons alone.
  • 1979 - The North Carolina Supreme Court upholds a regulation in a historic district "to control the exterior appearance of private property when the object of such control is the preservation of the State's legacy of historically significant structures." These regulations are "not primarily concerned with whether the subject... is beautiful or tasteful, but rather with preserving it as it is, representative of what it was." 298 N.C. 207, 216 (quoting Rathkopf's, The Law of Zoning and Planning).
  • 1982 - The North Carolina Supreme Court overrules its 1959 case, and holds that zoning regulations may be based solely upon aesthetics depending upon facts and circumstances.
  • 2015 - The North Carolina General Assemble withdraws power to regulate the exterior appearance of one or two dwellings except in historic districts and a few other situations.

Cherry v. Wiesner

Facts

In 2013, Cherry and Gordon (CG) sought issuance of a certificate of appropriateness from the Raleigh Historic Commission (Commission) to build a new house on a vacant lot. After several hearings, the Commission granted CG's request and Wiesner (W), a neighbor living across the street from CG's future home, appealed the decision to the Raleigh Board of Adjustment (Board).

At the Board, the City of Raleigh (City) requested dismissal of W's appeal because of her lack of standing to appeal the Commission's decision. The Board made no specific ruling on the City's request, exercised jurisdiction and reversed the Commission's decision.

CG and the City appealed the Board's decision to Superior Court. They continued to maintain that W lacked standing. As the issue of standing sharpened, W offered more specific and detailed information to show standing, including evidence stating the property value of W's home would diminish should CG build their home. In response, CG requested the court to strike the new evidence and offered their evidence stating that W's property value would not diminish should CG build their home.

The Superior Court did not admit any new evidence, agreed that W failed to show standing, reversed the Board and restored the Commission's original decision.

Decision

Relying upon established standing requirements applicable to challenging governmental land use decisions, the Court of Appeals reasoned that standing "most often turns on whether the party has alleged 'injury in fact' in light of the applicable statutes or caselaw." p. 5. To challenge a governmental land use decision, the challenger "must claim special damages, distinct from the rest of the community." p. 6.

Five years before Cherry, the North Carolina Court of Appeals had applied these same requirements to an appeal arising from a historic commission decision concerning demolition of an existing structure and construction of a new structure in its place. Sanchez v. Town of Beaufort, 211 N.C. App. 574 (2011), dis. rev. den., 365 N.C. 349 (2011). Sanchez alleged that the new structure would damage her property because she would lose her private waterfront view and this loss would reduce the value of her property by at least $100,000.00. The Court of Appeals concluded that Sanchez had standing.

After reviewing the Cherry record, the North Carolina Court of Appeals described W's allegations of standing as "purely aesthetic or are not distinct to her property" and concluded that the allegations did "not demonstrate special damages distinct to respondent other than the view from her front porch." pp. 8-9. (emphasis by the Court). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Superior Court's dismissal of W's challenge, reversal of the Board and restoration of the decision allowing CG to build their home.

Comments

1. A person residing in a historic district might reasonably believe that he or she possessed a right to challenge approval of a home across the street solely because the structure was not representative of the structures in the district. But, unlike property owners in planned communities, owners in historic districts lack contractual rights to enforce restrictions.

2. In Cherry, W's special damages arise from an alleged "incongruous, oddball two-story modernist home in a largely intact 19th Century historic neighborhood located directly across the street from Mrs. Wiesner." W's Motion to Supplement the Record. In other words, W's special damages arise from the exterior appearance of a home in close proximity of W's home – and nothing else. The alleged consequences of the exterior appearance is "loss of view and vista, increased gawker traffic, loss of privacy, impairment of ingress to and egress from her property, anxiety, harassment, diminished quiet enjoyment of [her] home, and diminution in property value and marketability." Id.

The distinction between Sanchez and Cherry is that the source of Sanchez' special damages is not the appearance of the new structure but its height, depriving Sanchez' property of a waterfront view. It is common knowledge that having a waterfront view at the coast is valued in the marketplace. Sanchez's damages occur irrespective of the structure's exterior appearance.

W's hurdle is twofold: showing (1) North Carolina caselaw finding standing solely because of the exterior appearance of a home and (2) the particular exterior appearance of a future home on a currently vacant lot across the street from W's property causes an injury in fact.

3. In 2015, the General Assembly withdrew police powers to regulate exterior appearances of one or two dwellings, but reaffirmed an exception for historic districts.

Should North Carolina courts design a special standing rule for appeals arising in historic districts? A secondary source states, "an allegation that the development of property threatens the aesthetic or cultural value of a historic district is sufficient to confer standing." Rathkopf's The Law of Zoning and Planning § 63.22.

In Sanchez, the Court of Appeals did not address this issue and in Cherry the Court may have been bound to follow Sanchez. The North Carolina Supreme Court may be the only court that can address this question.

Respectfully, the answer to this question is more significant than architectural debates between CG, W – or anybody else. There are good arguments pro and con for a special standing rule for historic districts. The answer is a policy decision made by the North Carolina Judiciary and answering it provides the "rules of the community" for every person living in a historic district in North Carolina.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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