A Sign to Many No More: Supreme Court of Missouri Casts Away Church's Sign Variance.

Author:Neuman, Matthew
  1. INTRODUCTION

    Depending on the context in which they are encountered, the consequences of land use zoning may be viewed either as a saving grace--preserving or prospectively safeguarding the locality to similar compatible uses--or as an obstacle to overcome--hindering the development potential or use of a piece of land. Although the level of concern may vary based upon the zoning district, homeowners in residential neighborhoods have a right to be particularly sensitive to adjacent land use.

    Zoning separates specified land uses into delineated geographic districts. These distinct separations exist to accomplish certain objectives. If a city's zoning designation is similar to that of Kansas City, Missouri, a residential zone may be designated as "primarily intended to create, maintain, and promote a variety of housing opportunities for individual households and to maintain the desired physical character of existing and developing neighborhoods." (1) As part of preserving the character of residential neighborhoods, concerns exist regarding the proliferation of signs. (2) A sign ordinance may provide a mechanism for balancing the legitimate need for signs with residents' desires to prevent their neighborhood from becoming overrun with unwelcome advertisements. (3)

    Part II of this Note explores the facts of Antioch Community Church v. Board of Zoning Adjustment of City of Kansas City, (4) a case involving a church seeking a zoning variance for a recently updated sign. Part III then provides a brief overview of the legal background of the case as well as zoning and variances in general. Next, Part IV analyzes the court's reasoning in the case. Lastly, Part V discusses how this case has created a stricter standard for non-use variances in Missouri and analyzes alternatives.

  2. FACTS AND HOLDING

    In February 2012, the Kansas City, Missouri, Board of Zoning Adjustment (the "KC-BZA") denied the request for a variance (5) submitted by Antioch Community Church (the "Church") concerning a digital display the Church installed as an update within its existing monument sign. (6) Prior to the addition of the digital display, the monument sign--originally installed in 1956 (7)--was of the type typically associated with small churches: a brick exterior surrounding a wood and glass frame with individual letters that could be manually changed. (8) Ignorant of any potential ordinance violation, the Church expended over $11,000 in 2010 to replace the letterboard portion of the sign with a digital display; no changes were made to the brick surround. (9) Figure 1 shows a picture of the sign and the adjacent road.

    The Church property lays within a "residential" zone on Antioch Road, (11) a four-lane roadway connecting Interstate 35 ("I-35") and Vivion Road. (12) The lot, approximately three and one-half acres, is zoned "R-6." (13) R-6 zoning indicates that the lot is in a residential district allowing one dwelling unit per 6,000 square feet of gross site area. (14) Religious-assembly use is allowed in the residential area; uses for fire stations, police stations, schools, and parks are also permitted. (15) Commercial development exists where Antioch Road intersects with I-35 and Vivion Road, and commercial zones surrounding those intersections permit digital signs. (16) Approximately 14,000 vehicles per day traverse Antioch Road. (17) Figure 2 shows the location of the Church and its proximity to these intersections.

    In October 2011, Kansas City's Director of City Planning and Development issued a citation to the Church because the Church's sign was not compliant with the Kansas City's sign code. (19) The citation specified digital signs were prohibited on the property. (20) The Church appealed the citation and applied for a variance--an administrative permission to depart from a zoning ordinance. (21) At the KC-BZA's hearing for the variance, the Church explained the history of the sign and the rationale for replacing the old display with the digital display. (22) The Church pointed to the latitude that a digital display created: A church member would not have to venture out in the elements to change the individual letters. (23) Additionally, the digital display allowed the Church to increase the font size to inform passing motorists of Church news. (24) At the hearing, a representative of a local neighborhood group testified in support of the variance. (25) There was no opposing testimony presented. (26) Without an accompanying written decision, the KC-BZA denied the Church's variance request. (27) The hearing transcript indicated that the KC-BZA felt the Church did not "establish undue hardship or practical difficulty" and that the KC-BZA itself lacked the authority to grant the variance. (28) Shortly thereafter, the KC-BZA denied the Church's appeal too, again without a written decision. (29)

    The Church's zoning dilemma and the KC-BZA's rationale for denying the variance request implicate multiple portions of the Kansas City, Missouri, Zoning and Development Code (the "Code"). Section 88-445-12 of the Code, discussing sign variances, states that "[t]he [KC-BZA] may grant variances to the requirements for signs, except as to type and number, and except as to sign location and spacing requirements for outdoor advertising signs, in accordance with the procedures of [the sign development standards]." (30) Sign type is defined by the Code as follows:

    A group or class of signs that are regulated, allowed or not allowed in this code as a group or class. Sign types include, but are not limited to, pole signs, monument signs, oversized monument signs, outdoor advertising signs, wall signs, projecting signs, roof signs, ornamental tower signs, electronic or digital or motorized signs, banner signs, and temporary signs. (31) A "digital sign" is defined as "[a] sign or component of a sign that uses changing lights to form a message or series of messages that are electronically programmed or modified by electronic processes." (32) In light of the above portions of the Code, the report prepared by Kansas City's Planning and Development Department staff opined that granting the variance was beyond the KC-BZA's authority. (33) During the hearing, the KC-BZA's chairman also pointed to the fact that the KC-BZA had previously denied other requests to allow digital displays. (34)

    The Church then filed a petition with the Clay County Circuit Court, (35) "alleg[ing] that '[t]he [KC-]BZA's denial of... [the] Church's requested variance and the denial of the [C]hurch's appeal was arbitrary, capricious, illegal, unconstitutional and void because each was unsupported by the competent and substantial evidence upon the record as a whole and contrary to law.'" (36) The day before the trial court rendered its judgment, the Church filed a supplemental petition against Kansas City for a declaratory judgment that the sign Code was unconstitutional. (37) In reversing the KC-BZA's decision, the trial court held that the KC-BZA's decision was an abuse of discretion and that the KC-BZA did have the authority to grant the variance. (38) It then directed the KC-BZA to issue the variance. (39) Because of this outcome, the issue of the constitutionality of the supplemental petition was moot, and the trial court dismissed it. (40)

    The KC-BZA appealed the judgment. (41) The Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri affirmed the circuit court's judgment. (42) Applying the court's own "practical difficulty" analysis set forth in prior case law, the Western District held that the KC-BZA abused its discretion in denying the variance request because the variation was not substantial and would not change the neighborhood's character. (43) The Western District further held there was no feasible alternative for the Church. (44) The Supreme Court of Missouri granted transfer. (45) Like the lower courts, it held that the KC-BZA did have the authority to grant the variance; however, the supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the KC-BZA's original denial of the variance because the Church failed to show "practical difficulties" in operating without the variance. (46)

  3. LEGAL BACKGROUND

    This Part will explore the fundamentals of zoning and variances. Following an introduction to the history of zoning and the legal framework for zoning in Missouri, this Part will address use and non-use variances and the implication of the variance type. Next, this Part will discuss the review process for variances. Finally, the application of zoning to places of worship will briefly be addressed.

    1. Zoning

      Comprehensive zoning laws emerged in the United states in the early 1900s as a response to the problems associated with increasing population density. (47) Zoning allows a local government to create districts within its jurisdiction and define permissible land uses within those districts. (48) Zoning purportedly serves many purposes, including the preservation of property values, the protection of the character and aesthetics of an area, and the control of traffic. (49) Zoning laws and regulations find justification through their relation to the police power--the state's inherent ability to make laws for the promotion of "public health, safety, morals, or general welfare." (50)

      Across the United States, enabling acts grant this police power authority to local governments. (51) In 1925, the Missouri legislature passed its zoning enabling act. (52) Section 1 delineated the purpose of the act:

      [P]romoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community, the legislative body of all incorporated cities, towns and villages is hereby empowered to regulate and restrict the height, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, and the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes...

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