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Who Enforces Zoning Law Compliance?

In general, North Carolina zoning ordinances and laws are enforced at the local level. That is, zoning is a local matter and not generally enforced by North Carolina state law enforcement or officials. Generally speaking, zoning laws are a type of land-use regulation intended to regulate the use of land and often restrict the types of uses to which land can be put and often the design, height, size, and location of buildings on a parcel of land.

Most counties and municipalities enforce zoning compliance through their respective zoning offices. For example, Wake County, North Carolina has hired its own enforcement staff to respond to complaints. But, as noted here, the Wake County enforcement staff responds to building code, zoning and environmental health violations but only in unincorporated areas of the county. Within the county, each municipality has its own code enforcement staff and procedures.

Typically, landowners in violation -- or alleged violation -- of zoning laws are given a "citation" requiring appearance before the local zoning compliance office. An investigation is often conducted, and the proceedings are generally administrative in nature, more akin to proceedings to resolve a traffic violation like a parking ticket.

That being said, under North Carolina law, counties and municipalities have the discretion to delegate zoning compliance to any number of departments or offices. Thus, for example, in the case of Fantasy World, Inc., v. Greensboro Board of Adjustment, 592 S.E.2d 205 (NC Court of Appeals 2004), the court held that the City's Charter gave it the authority to designate zoning compliance assessment responsibilities to its tax collector, the department responsible for issuing business license permits. In that case, the tax collector's office determined that the applicant was in violation of zoning ordinances with respect to adult-themed stores and establishments and, therefore, denied the business an operating tax license/permit. The court held that the City possessed the authority to allow its tax collector to assess an applicant's zoning compliance. Further, the court held that it was lawful for the City to provide that appeals from the tax department would be heard by the Greensboro Board of Adjustments.

Under these principles, a North Carolina local government could task the local sheriff or other law enforcement agency with enforcing zoning laws. As an example, there are proposals being made in Atlanta, Georgia that Atlanta police officers should take on the responsibility of enforcing zoning compliance. See report here.

What About Private Litigation to Enforce Compliance?

Zoning laws and regulations can also be enforced via private litigation filed in the local county Superior Court. Generally, these lawsuits are based on doctrines like nuisance. However, at some point, neighboring property owners CAN sue to enforce zoning laws. Generally, however, the neighboring property owner must wait until the administrative process is finished. That is, the local zoning enforcement personnel must issue a citation, a decision must be made on the citation and, possibly, an appeal must be taken from that determination.

A good example comes from the case of Whitehurst v. Alexander County, Case No. COA15-265 (NC Court of Appeals 2016) (unpublished). In that case, a landowner was operating a boat repair business that was allowed as a non-conforming use. The neighbor was unhappy and reported the landowner to the County Zoning Enforcement Officer in 2011 and then again in 2013 for allegedly expanding his repair business in violation of the zoning ordinance. In 2013, the Enforcement Officer gave the landowner a Notice of Zoning Violation. The landowner was fined $50.00 per day until he brought his business back into compliance.

However, the landowner appealed to the County Zoning Board. The Board held a hearing and concluded that the landowner was not in violation of the zoning ordinance. The 2013 Notice of Zoning Violation was dismissed.

The neighbor was, again, not happy. Pursuant to proper North Carolina legal procedure, the neighbor brought the case into the local county Superior Court by filing what is called a petition for writ of certiorari and a complaint for a declaratory judgment. Through these filing, the neighbor requested the Superior Court to reverse the Board's decision and, essentially, reinstate the 2013 Notice of Zoning Violation. In this manner, the neighbor was able to attempt to enforce a local zoning law through private litigation. In the Whitehurst case, the neighbor was unsuccessful. The court upheld the decision of the County Board to dismiss the 2013 Notice of Zoning Violation.

Contact Experienced Mecklenburg County Land Use Attorneys Today

For more information, and to schedule a confidential consultation with experienced and dedicated zoning and land use 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.