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This blog focuses on real estate, land use and construction-related topics affecting Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area. With topics ranging from contract drafting and negotiation to local and regional land use project updates, the attorneys at Bean, Kinney & Korman provide timely insight and commentary on the issues affecting owners, builders, developers, contractors, subcontractors and other players in the industry. If you are interested in having us cover a specific topic, please let us know.

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Holding the Zoning Administrator Accountable: The New Vested Rights Bill

Can you imagine going to your local zoning office, asking for a formal determination from the Zoning Administrator as to whether you are permitted to build a building on your property, receiving a formal written determination that you may do so legally, providing the written opinion to your bank who then provides the financing, then paying for and constructing the building, only to be notified thereafter by the locality that they have either changed their mind or have decided to rezone your property without your consent in the interim?  You complain that you were told by the locality that you could build the building, but all you get is "Sorry, we've decided you can't do that after all."

Does that stick in your craw?  It should, and local officials flopping or waffling over their prior decisions happens, to some degree or another, more frequently than some might think in localities all over our Commonwealth.  Well, you can stop clearing your throat and loosening your tie because the General Assembly voted this past Monday (House 92 to 4, Senate 40 to 0) to make Zoning Administrators more accountable for the decisions they make - decisions on which private citizens must rely.  HB 1250 passed, and it modifies Section 15.2-2307 of the Code of Virginia to provide that formal determinations made by Zoning Administrators, after the requisite appeal or modification period has run, shall be considered "significant affirmative government acts" (aka "SAGAs") if a private party has relied upon a SAGA to the requisite extent.

Our colleagues at Sands Anderson down in Richmond and Beth Wellington blogged earlier this week that allowing private citizens to rely on a formal opinion by the Zoning Administrator (that person holding the statutorily designated office to make such determinations), might somehow allow private property owners to rezone their property "in the dark," or gain some other advantage outside of the public eye.  Yes, it is true that a Zoning Administrator has the sole authority to make a formal, binding determination of what a parcel of land's current zoning classification allows; however, that is in fact the total extent of that authority.  A Zoning Administrator may not grant, through a formal determination, additional rights to use land beyond what is permitted by its current zoning classification. 

The other concerns raised about the bill seem to relate to lack of public notice to other potentially interested parties that such a SAGA is being made (i.e. a Zoning Administrator may issue a formal determination to a property owner without giving other potentially interested parties any notice).  What if you are a co-owner not reflected in any public record, a lender, or an adjoining property owner that would be affected detrimentally by an incorrect determination?  You would have no way of knowing that a determination had been made and that the clock on your appeal window is ticking away.   In fact, realistically, it is very unlikely you would know anything until your appeal period had lapsed (typically only 30 to 60 days, depending on the facts).

Some of the other statutorily listed SAGAs require some kind of legally advertised public review process; however, these are only those SAGAs that are the culmination of processes that allow property owners to do things beyond what they may do by-right, such as variances, special exceptions, etc.  Other by-right SAGAs do not require public review, such as subdivision approvals, plans of development, etc.  Clearly, a zoning determination may not permit something illegal, but who would know until it was too late?  Are we heading toward publishing legal notices that a zoning determination has been made?  How would this jibe with the "A Thing Decided Doctrine" relating to oral determinations made by Zoning Administrators?