The importance of your Zoning Board of Appeals

Maintaining a properly organized and functioning Zoning Board of Appeals is critical to ensure the integrity of the board’s decisions and to avoid potentially serious and costly legal issues.

For decorative purposes.

For many rural communities, significant amounts of time can lapse without action from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). This idleness often is the result of a lack of need. It is not uncommon for rural Michigan communities to see new business brought before a local ZBA on an irregular basis, often with many years between requests. This time gap, however, can create significant legal problems for a community if regular attention is not being given to the ZBA, including periodic training.

If a community has zoning, it must have a ZBA. The ZBA exists to make quasi-judicial decisions associated with administration of the zoning ordinance. The ZBA is the only body authorized to make zoning text and zoning map interpretations, to hear appeals of administrative decisions, and to grant variances from ordinance standards where there is practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship meeting ordinance standards. A properly functioning ZBA is critical because it serves as the last “stop” before heading into court, and its findings and actions will be reviewed by the judge and influence the final determination of a case. Unfortunately, many communities are often unprepared when a request for the ZBA comes in, and they find themselves scrambling to appoint and swear-in ZBA members in time for the meeting. This lack of preparation can cause undue delays and potentially lead to due process issues.

To prevent these potentially serious and costly problems, a ZBA should meet at least once per year, regardless of whether there are any requests to the board. Additionally, the legislative body should review ZBA membership records annually and maintain a current, legally functioning ZBA by ensuring proper appointments and swearing-in as needed. This information should be recorded and maintained in an easily identifiable location if the need arises to access and verify the information. The legislative body should also budget for training and annually inform members of opportunities to learn ZBA roles and responsibilities, such as the Michigan State University Extension ZBA Online Certificate Course.

ZBA requirements are established by statue in Article VI of the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. Michigan State University Extension also provides a step-by-step guide for processing appeals and variance requests to the ZBA.

The information below is a summary that will help guide a review of ZBA compliance with state statute.

ZBA composition:

  • ZBA members are appointed to three (3) year terms or same as term of office for planning commission/legislative body members (ex officio)
  • Not less than three (3) members for populations less than 5,000
  • Not less than five (5) members for populations greater than or equal to 5,000
  • ZBA members shall be electors within the zoning jurisdiction of the local unit of government
  • For townships and counties, one member of the ZBA must be a member of the planning commission
  • A member of the legislative body may be on the ZBA
  • The legislative body may be the ZBA ONLY in cities and villages (a township board may not be the ZBA)
  • Up to two (2) alternate members are allowed (an alternate must stay with a case until its final, they act as a regular member when serving)

ZBA voting requirements:

  • The ZBA shall not conduct business unless a majority of members are present
  • When voting on an administrative appeal or dimensional variance, simple majority of ZBA membership is needed
  • When voting on a use variance, two-thirds (2/3) of ZBA membership is needed

The Zoning Board of Appeals is a critical function of a community’s planning and zoning program. Acting properly, the board protects the interests of all parties and upholds due process. When poorly trained, the board can be a serious legal risk to the community. Meeting regularly, reviewing and appointing members, and budgeting for training are all important measures to avoid potentially serious and costly legal issues. Contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator to learn more about related educational resources.

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