By: Ashley Collette and Evan Reid

On October 12, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Siena Corporation v. Mayor and City Council of Rockville, Maryland. In its colorfully-worded decision, the court affirmed the dismissal of the “garden-variety zoning dispute recast in constitutional terms.”

Facts and Procedural History 

In 2013, Siena Corporation set out to construct an “ezStorage” self-storage facility in Rockville, Maryland. The property on which it chose to build was located down the block from an elementary school. Parents at the school expressed fears that the storage facility would lead to safety concerns for the elementary-aged students, including an increase in traffic and “U-Haul-style trucks” driven by inexperienced drivers, the storage of illegal or hazardous materials, and the potential release of asbestos. In response to these concerns, the City Council proposed the Planning Commission adopt a new zoning amendment that prohibited self-storage facilities within 250 feet of public schools. The Planning Commission recommended that the amendment be denied and held a public hearing on the proposed amendment.

While this was taking place, Siena obtained conditional site plan approval from the Planning Commission for their proposed “ezStorage” facility. However, this was conditional approval awaiting Siena’s full compliance with nineteen additional conditions as well as reviews by numerous local agencies.

The Rockville City Council ultimately adopted the zoning amendment prohibiting self-storage facilities in February of 2015. Siena brought suit against the City Council, the Mayor and two Councilmembers who had supported the amendment, and a Rockville resident who had urged its adoption (collectively “the Council”) seeking judicial review of the adoption of the zoning amendment in State court. Siena alleged in its complaint that the amendment violated its due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and that the newly adopted zoning amendment targeted them specifically.

The Council removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss. The federal district court dismissed Siena’s federal due process claim, concluding that “Siena lacked a protected property interest in the ezStorage facility’s construction because it had not applied for a building permit.” Regarding Siena’s equal protection claim, the court held the zoning amendment had a rational basis and was thus constitutional. Siena appealed the district court’s decision to the Fourth Circuit, which reviewed the court’s decision de novo.

Due Process

To prevail on its claim that it was denied due process, Siena needed to show “(1) that it possessed a ‘cognizable property interest, rooted in state law,’ and (2) that the Council deprived it of property interest in a manner ‘so far beyond the outer limits of legitimate governmental action that no process could cure the deficiency.’” The Court found that Siena failed to meet either prong of the test. As to the first prong, Siena had not satisfied the conditions necessary to file for a building permit. But even if it had, the Court explained that zoning issues are local matters that should be decided at the local level. The Fourth Circuit noted that “[e]ven if Siena had a protected property interest here, the enactment of the zoning text amendment would fall short of a substantive due process violation.” Under its analyses of the second prong, the Court held that the action taken by the Council (the passing of an amendment barring self-storage businesses within 250 feet of public schools) was inside the limits of legitimate governmental action. The support for that conclusion was based on evidence that the Council heard testimony about the negative effects of self-storage sites and could have reasonably believed that testimony.

Equal Protection

The Fourth Circuit quickly disposed of Siena’s claim that the amendment violated the equal protection clause by pointing out that the action in question did not involve any rights protected by a higher level of scrutiny than rational basis. The Court stated that “the zoning text amendment is rationally related” to “the state interest in protecting schoolchildren.” Additionally, the Court noted that legislatures have great discretion in drafting statutes that involve economic matters, and this statute did not target Siena but rather applied equally to all self-storage businesses.

Conclusion

This case reaffirms the deference given to local authorities in zoning matters. The Fourth Circuit is hesitant to intervene absent a fundamental right at stake or targeting language.

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