Critical training for Zoning Board of Appeals members

Acting properly, a community's Zoning Board of Appeals protects the interests of all parties and upholds due process, but when poorly trained, the board can be a serious legal risk to the community.

Five individuals at a conference table conducting a board meeting. For decorative purposes.
Photo via iStock Essentials Collection.

The zoning board of appeals (ZBA) is the local government body with the responsibility and authority to hear appeals that arise in the administration of the local zoning ordinance. If a zoning setback prohibits a property owner from building on their lot, or a decision by the planning commission is in doubt, the ZBA can hear the request and decide if a different course of action is warranted. This is a critical function of a community’s planning and zoning program to protect due process. 

For many smaller Michigan communities, the ZBA meets infrequently or perhaps just annually. This is often the result of no new business being brought before the ZBA. For ZBAs that meet infrequently, there can be vacancies that prevent the ZBA from deciding a case, Michigan Open Meetings Act violations that call into question the legitimacy of the meeting, and new and established members alike that lack the knowledge and context to properly hear and decide a request. Such shortcomings present serious legal risks to the community. 

Fortunately, Michigan State University Extension offers the ZBA Online Certificate Course – a self-paced online training designed for members of the local government Zoning Board of Appeals, local government staff who work alongside the ZBA, and local government managers and attorneys. All too often, a ZBA that has not met for many months is suddenly scheduled to hear a request that is perhaps unlike anything they have considered for years. The ZBA might have little more than 15 days to get training and prepare for the meeting, based on minimum public hearing notice requirements (MCL 125.3103).  

The ZBA Online Certificate Course teaches the latest concepts on ZBA roles and responsibilities, effective decision-making, and protecting due process with the objectives to: 

  • Uphold private property rights,
  • Protect due process for appellants and neighboring property owners alike,
  • Help landowners understand the purpose of land use regulation in protecting public health, safety, and welfare,
  • Help implement the community master plan by protecting the integrity of the zoning ordinance,
  • Strengthen the role of the zoning ordinance in community and economic development,
  • Build civic support for good governance in the community, and
  • Protect against lawsuits, among other outcomes.

The curriculum is based on MSU Extension’s award-winning Citizen Planner Program and features ZBA-specific content, engaging activities, case studies, and the latest Michigan case law. The course consists of six separate modules: 

  1. Understanding Basic ZBA Roles & Responsibilities
  2. Effective Decisions and Ordinance Interpretations
  3. Hearing Appeals of Administrative Decisions
  4. Issuing Variances from Ordinance Standards
  5. Other Responsibilities Assigned to the ZBA: Nonconformities
  6. Circuit Court Review and Standards

Within each module, there are individual video lectures, engaging activities, and supplemental readings, plus comprehension checks to assess knowledge retention. Upon completion of the entire course, participants will earn an MSU Extension certificate of completion. 

Learn more about the ZBA Online Certificate Course and consider registering your ZBA members for training designed to uphold due process and protect against lawsuits. Individual ZBA members, untrained or poorly trained, can hamper the ZBA from properly doing its job and make the community vulnerable to lawsuits that undermine community development objectives and financial stability.

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