August 22, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Neighbors’ Due Process Rights Not Violated During Rezoning Hearing

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Whitelaw v. Denver City Council on Thursday, April 6, 2017.

C.R.C.P. 106(a)(4) —Rezoning Decision—Due Process—Spot Zoning.

Plaintiffs Whitelaw, III and various neighbors sought judicial review of the rezoning decision of defendant Denver City Council. Cedar Metropolitan LLC applied to rezone a 2.3-acre parcel. To build an “age-targeted” apartment complex on the site, Cedar sought to tear down a blighted church and rezone the parcel from single family home to a zone district that allowed three-story apartment buildings. The neighbors are property owners who live in the neighborhood near the parcel. They challenged the rezoning efforts, asserting it would hurt their property values, create traffic and parking problems, cause hazards to pedestrians, and degrade the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Following an eight-hour hearing, the Council granted the request to change the zoning.

The neighbors challenged the rezoning in district court under C.R.C.P. 106(a)(4). The district court rejected all of their claims. On appeal, the neighbors asserted various claims, principally violation of their right to due process. They made five due process arguments. The court of appeals will affirm a rezoning decision unless the governmental entity exceeded its jurisdiction or abused its discretion, which occurs if the body misapplied the law or no competent evidence supports its decision.

The neighbors first argued that a lobbyist for Cedar communicated before the hearing with Council member Susman, in whose district the parcel lies, through her private email account and by phone. They alleged that the failure to disclose these communications to the public before the hearing deprived them of their due process rights because they did not have notice and an opportunity to rebut the information on which the Council may have impermissibly relied in making its determination. Despite evidence of approximately 50 pages of such emails, the neighbors pointed to no evidence that they had a “substantial prejudicial impact” on the outcome of the proceedings. In fact, Susman voted against the rezoning. The neighbors did not overcome the presumption that the Council members acted with integrity, honesty, and impartiality, and they showed no prejudice from the communications.

Second, the neighbors asserted their due process rights were violated due to the involvement of Cedar’s architect, who was also a member of the City’s Planning Board, in the application process. The Planning Board recommended that the Council approve the rezoning. The architect submitted the application to the Board, but did not attend the Planning Board meeting or vote on the rezoning and thus complied with the Denver Municipal Code. Further, the Planning Board’s recommendation is not appealable because it is not a “final decision” reviewable under C.R.C.P. 106(a)(4). Therefore, the court of appeals did not review this claim.

Third, the neighbors argued that their due process rights were violated because certain Council members’ comments at the public hearing reflected “flawed quasi-judicial decision making” and showed they “relied on irrelevant factors and information outside of the hearing record” in making their decision. The neighbors failed to demonstrate a lack of competent evidence supporting the Council’s decision or that any individual member relied on factual information outside the hearing record or ignored the record in casting their vote. There was competent evidence in the record to support the Council’s decision.

Fourth, the neighbors argued their due process rights were violated because the Council stepped outside of its neutral, quasi-judicial role and supported Cedar by improperly applying the protest petition procedure of the Denver City Charter. The protest procedure provides that if opponents gather signatures from property owners representing 20% or more of the land area within 200 feet of the perimeter of a proposed rezoning, the rezoning must pass the Council by a super-majority (10 members). Opponents gathered 17% of the perimeter zone signatures and the rezoning passed 8 to 4. The neighbors argued that the City improperly applied the protest procedure by including City-owned park land but not allowing a procedure for residents to obtain petition signatures from the City. The court disagreed, finding that the City’s calculation of the 200-foot protest petition area was in accordance with the Denver Charter.

Fifth, the neighbors alleged a due process violation because some Council members received “substantial” political contributions from lobbyists and were therefore biased in the rezoning vote. Evidence of this was not in the record before the Council and therefore was not reviewable by the court.

The neighbors also argued that the rezoning decision must be vacated because, as a matter of law, it did not comply with the City’s zoning ordinance, alleging it was not consistent with the City’s adopted plans; no specific circumstances justified the rezoning; and the rezoning fails to further the public health, safety, and general welfare. The record shows that the Council members engaged in lengthy discussions about the criteria and evidence, including testimony presented by both proponents and opponents at the hearing. The Council did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the proposed zoning was consistent with the City’s adopted plans; the rezoning resulted in uniformity of district regulations and restrictions; the rezoning furthered the public health, safety, and general welfare; circumstances justified the rezoning; and the rezoning was consistent with the description of the applicable neighborhood context and the stated purpose and intent of the proposed Zone District.

Finally, the neighbors argued that the rezoning was impermissible spot zoning because it did not further Denver’s comprehensive plans and was therefore an abuse of discretion. The court disagreed. Here, the rezoning was not out of character with the adjacent area and furthered the City’s adopted plans.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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