How would a court review the Board of Reps' decision to reject Life Time Fitness?

August 26, 2018

Update:  I'm informed that the time to appeal the Zoning Board's decision has not yet expired, notwithstanding the city charter provisions cited below.  Further, if an appeal is made, it will be on the question of whether a condominium owner is a "landowner" per the city charter, and will not challenge if the Board of Reps abused its discretion in declining to approve the proposed text change.

 

So, much of the analysis below may not be the most relevant to a Life Time Fitness appeal, although I hope it is instructive for future zoning issues.

 

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I've heard rumors that Life Time Fitness is considering appealing the Board of Reps' decision to reject the text change that would have allowed them to build their health club in the office park next to Exit 35.  If so, how would that work?  And by what standard would a court review if the Board or Reps' decision was appropriate?

 

To begin with, it appears too late for them to appeal.  The city charter provides persons aggrieved by an order of the Board of Reps (sitting in place of the Zoning Board) 15 days to appeal an order adverse to them.  See Sec. C6-40-17 ("Any person aggrieved by a decision of the Board of Representatives . . . may appeal therefrom within fifteen days of such decision . . . to the Superior Court, Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk at Stamford.").  

 

The Board of Reps rejected the proposed text change on August 6, 2018.  6 + 15 = 21.  So, August 21, 2018 is the deadline by which Life Time must appeal.  Thereore, unless I've read this wrong, it's too late to appeal the rejection of the text change, and the following discussion may be moot.

 

Let's figure it out anyways.

 

* * * 

 

Preliminarily, it is possible there are two things that Life Time could appeal:  First, the Board of Reps' decision to accept the petition appealing the Zoning Board's approval of the text change, notwithstanding the city's determination a "landowner" for purposes of signing the petition excludes condominium owners; and second, the substantive determination by the Board of Reps to reject the text change.

 

This "landowner" dispute should be described as a pure question of law, which means the Superior Court would give no deference to the Board of Reps' decision.  Accordingly, it would look to the text of the statute, previous decisions in the Connecticut courts, and whatever other authorities it finds persuasive to determine if "landowners" includes or excludes condominium owners.

 

The substantive determination to reject the text change, however, would get significant deference from the Superior Court.  

 

Sec. C6-40-1 of the city charter sets forth the powers and duties of the Zoning Board.  I'll spare you the lengthy excerpt and summarize as follows:  the Zoning Board should be reasonable in setting forth zoning regulations (and exceptions thereto) in Stamford.  Quality of life; traffic concerns; conforming uses; etc.; all of this can and should be considered when the Zoning Board goes about its business.

 

Unlike what defines a "landowner," these are judgment calls based upon the facts on the ground.  The Zoning Board exercises its own judgment about the facts relevant to proposed zoning regulations it considers.  The same is true of the Board of Reps when sitting in appeal of a Zoning Board determination.

 

Accordingly, if the Superior Court reviews the Board of Reps' decision to reject the proposed its text change, it would ask if the Board of Reps abused its discretion in doing so.  See Westover Park, Inc. v. Zoning Bd. of City of Stamford, No. CV020188384, at *2 (Conn. Super. Ct. Dec. 18, 2003); see also B. I. B. Associates v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of City of Stamford, 163 Conn. 615, 316 A.2d 414 (1972) (finding the grant of a variance as illegal and an abuse of discretion).  Explained further, the Superior Court would ask if the Board of Reps properly considered the criteria set forth in Section C6-40-1 of the city charter, and if their determination was "unreasonable, arbitrary or illegal." See Irwin v. Planning & Zoning Comm'n of Town of Litchfield, 244 Conn. 619, 628, 711 A.2d 675, 679 (1998) (providing a comprehensive analysis of how a reviewing court should determine if a zoning board abused its discretion).

 

This doesn't mean the Superior Court would necessarily agree they'd make the same decision as the Board of Reps, but merely that the Board of Reps wasn't unfair in such decision.  As the court in Irwin explained, "the court's task would be to “simply” determine “whether the reasons assigned are reasonably supported by the record and whether they are pertinent to the considerations which the commission is required to apply under the zoning regulations."  Id. at 629.

 

* * * 

 

The Board of Reps had a thoughtful review of the pros and cons of the proposed text change to allow the Life Time Fitness building.  There were multiple public hearings, reviews of advocacy pieces from both sides and the public, and discussion from sitting Representatives when the Board of Reps was in session.  The discussion focused on the issues the city charter required them to focus on, like the effect of the text change on traffic, the importance of preserving the character of the neighborhood, and the promotion of health and general welfare of the City and its residents.

 

I probably disagreed with the rejection of the text change.  But the process was certainly fair.  Democracy worked.  Both sides had an opportunity to make their case, and our elected representatives had to make a decision in favor of one side or another.  For these reasons, it strikes me as unlikely that the Board of Reps' decision would be overturned on appeal.

 

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