Legal Alerts Apr 08, 2020

Local Government Has an Important Interest in Adjudicating Zoning Disputes

Ninth Circuit Dismisses Case Brought Against Alameda County for Zoning Requirements

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed an appeal by Citizens for Free Speech against Alameda County, (Citizens for Free Speech, LLC v. County of Alameda) its Zoning Board and various local officials on the grounds that hearing the case would intrude upon the powers of the County’s abatement process. The court found that Citizens' case was still ongoing at the county level and that the County had an important interest in adjudicating zoning disputes.
In 2014, the nonprofit Citizens entered into an agreement with an Alameda County land owner to display billboards expressing political messages. The County determined that the billboards violated the local zoning requirements.  Thus, it began abatement proceedings against Citizens. The abatement proceedings provided for a hearing before the Zoning Board and included the right to appeal adverse decisions. Citizens did not proceed with the County’s abatement proceedings and instead filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent abatement, but failed to obtain a permanent injunction barring the County from enforcing its ordinance. After the lower court ruled against Citizens, the County initiated a new abatement proceeding. Citizens responded by filing another federal lawsuit alleging a deprivation of their rights under 42 U.S. §1983. The lower court dismissed the action citing the County’s ongoing abatement proceedings, the quasi-criminal element of the abatement proceedings and the County’s important interest in ruling over its zoning disputes. The court also awarded the County its costs and fees.
The Ninth Circuit, hearing Citizens appeal, agreed with the lower court that all required elements for a dismissal were present. The Ninth Circuit applied the elements for dismissal found in Younger v. Harris, requiring a dispute to be ongoing, a quasi-criminal enforcement action, implicates an important state interest and allows litigants to raise a federal challenge. The abatement proceeding was “ongoing” and also satisfied the “quasi-criminal enforcement” element. The Supreme Court has recognized that civil enforcement proceedings initiated by the state “to sanction the federal plaintiff…for some wrongful act,” including investigations “often culminating in the filing of a formal complaint or charges meet this requirement.” Nuisance abatement proceedings fall into this category. The County’s abatement proceedings included an investigation, alleged violations of nuisance ordinances, notice to appear before a zoning board, and the possibility of monetary fines and/or forcible removal of the violating structure. Therefore, the court found that this complaint met the ongoing requirement and the quasi-criminal enforcement requirement for a dismissal.
The abatement proceeding also implicated a strong state interest: the County’s “strong interest in its land-use ordinances and in providing a uniform procedure for resolving zoning disputes.” The Ninth Circuit also found that the abatement proceeding also allowed Citizens an adequate opportunity to raise its federal challenges. Under California law, a litigant may seek judicial review of an adverse decision and, in doing so, may raise federal claims. Thus, the third requirement for a dismissal was also met.
If you have any questions about this decision, please contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
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