What Is Illegal “Spot Zoning” in North Carolina?

The practice generally called "spot zoning" occurs when a municipality or county zones or re-zones a particular parcel in a manner that is in contrast with the zoning regulations that apply to the surrounding parcels. An example would be allowing one parcel to be zoned as "light industrial" when all the surrounding parcels are zoned as "single-family residential." In many states, but not in North Carolina, spot zoning is invalid under all circumstances. The reasons for blanket invalidity include:

  • The destruction of the underlying purpose of general zoning designations
  • The interference with neighboring landowner expectations with respect to land use, ascetics and the like
  • The appearance of favoritism towards the landowner awarded the special spot zoning designation
  • The precedence set for others whom might want to seek favorable spot zoning designation

As noted, in North Carolina, spot zoning is not invalid in all circumstances. In North Carolina, the definition of spot zoning is narrowly defined (compared to other states) and is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In North Carolina, courts defined spot zoning to exist under four conditions:

  • Where the ordinance or zoning variances singles out and reclassifies a relatively small tract
  • That is owned by a single person
  • That is surrounded by a much larger area uniformly zoned,
  • That treats the small tract sufficiently different from the surrounding tracts by relieving the smaller tract from restrictions or imposing more restrictions that do not apply the rest of the area

To successfully challenge a zoning ordinance or variance as invalid spot zoning, a challenger must demonstrate ALL of these elements. In one reported case, for example, the court held that a 51-acre parcel surrounded by property zoned as rural agricultural was not a "small tract." As such, there had been no spot zoning when the 51-acre parcel was rezoned to "restricted residential." See Childress v. Yadkin County, 650 SE 2d 55 (NC Court of Appeals 2007). In another reported case, the court concluded that no spot zoning had occurred because the zoning change applied to 15 parcels which were owned by six different persons (even though the different owners were members of the same, extended family). Musi v. Town of Shallotte, 684 SE 2d 892 (NC Court of Appeals 2009). The Musi court concluded that no spot zoning had occurred for the additional reason that the surrounding parcels were not uniformly zoned. In Muni, the challengers presented to the court a map showing the one-mile radius around the parcels at issue. The map revealed that, in that one mile area around the subject property, several zoning categories were included.

Even if a court decides that spot zoning has occurred, a court could uphold the zoning authority's decision if there is a “... clear showing of a reasonable basis" for the spot zoning designation. There are various factors that North Carolina courts use to evaluate whether a spot zoning designation is "reasonable." The include (but are not exhausted by) the following:

  • The size of the tract in question
  • The compatibility of the disputed zoning action with an existing comprehensive zoning plan
  • The benefits and detriments resulting from the zoning action for the owner of the newly zoned property, neighbors and the surrounding community
  • The relationship between the uses envisioned under the new zoning and the uses currently present in adjacent tracts

North Carolina courts are instructed to be "flexible" when evaluating the lawfulness of spot zoning. In a seminal case, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld a spot zoning that allowed a special zoning designation allowing a landowner to store and sell agricultural chemicals. The court deemed this rezoning to be "reasonable" under the facts of the case for two reasons. First, the surrounding land was essentially agricultural and, as such, the newly allowable land use would be clearly beneficial to the area's farmers. Second, the preexisting zoning for the surrounding land allowed for the storage of grains and similar farm products. Thus, the new zoning use was not drastically incongruous with the previous and surrounding zoning allowances and limitations. The court also noted that, while the neighboring landowners objected to the rezoning, many other neighbors and farmers in the surrounding communities supported the rezoning.

Contact Experienced Mecklenburg County Land Use Attorneys Today

For more information, and to schedule a confidential consultation with experienced and dedicated land use and zoning attorneys in Charlotte, contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Use our “Contact” page or give us a call at 704-370-2828. We handle land use, zoning, and condemnation legal matters in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere in North Carolina. We have offices in Charlotte, Lake Norman, and Union County.