¶1. "`[I]n construing a zoning ordinance, unless manifestly unreasonable, great weight should be given to the construction placed upon the words by the local authorities.'"
¶2. After review, based on the Board's prior treatment of a similar matter and its construction of the applicable zoning law, we find the Board's decision was neither arbitrary nor capricious. And the interpretation was certainly not "manifestly unreasonable." This Court also finds that, in light of the entire Ordinance, Hatfield had sufficient notice that keeping or raising fowl on residential property was prohibited. We therefore affirm the Madison County Circuit Court's ruling, which affirmed the Board's interpretation and decision.
Background Facts and Procedural History
¶3. In July 2012, Hatfield purchased Lot 1 in Phase 1 of Deer Haven subdivision in Madison, Mississippi. At some point after purchasing the lot, Hatfield began raising chickens, guineafowl, and ducks on the property.
¶4. According to Hatfield, in October 2013, he was sued by the Deer Haven Owners Association (DHOA).
¶5. Weeks inspected Hatfield's property twice more. His April 1 and April 13 visits revealed Hatfield had not removed the fowl. Again, Weeks sent a followup letter, this one dated April 13, 2015. The letter explained that, because Hatfield had failed to correct the violation, the matter would be presented to the Madison County Board of Supervisors (the Board).
¶6. On June 1, 2015, the Board heard presentations and recommendations from Weeks, County Attorney Mike Espy, Hatfield's counsel, and DHOA's lawyer. After considering the arguments, the Board voted unanimously to accept Weeks's and Espy's findings and recommendations. The Board found Hatfield had violated R-1 zoning by keeping or raising around sixty "ducks, geese and other fowl" on his Deer Haven lot. The Board found these acts were neither a permitted nor a conditional use under R-1 zoning. The Board also denied Hatfield's request to continue to keep or raise fowl on the property.
¶7. Hatfield filed a Notice of Appeal and Intent to File Bill of Exceptions on June 10, 2015. He filed his Bill of Exceptions on August 19, 2015. In it, he argued the Board's decision was arbitrary and capricious, not supported by substantial evidence, and was based on an unconstitutionally vague Ordinance section. The Board responded through its counsel, insisting its decision was not arbitrary or capricious. The Board urged its decision mirrored a previous similar ruling in another matter—that keeping or raising fowl was not a permitted or conditional use under R-1 zoning. And the Ordinance section dealing with R-1 zoning clearly listed the permitted uses, particularly when viewed in light of other sections. Sitting as an appellate court, the circuit judge found the Board's decision was "fairly debatable," supported by substantial evidence, and not arbitrary or capricious.
¶8. Hatfield now appeals to this Court. He argues: (1) the Board's decision was arbitrary, capricious, and unsupported by substantial evidence, and (2) Section 601 of the Madison County Zoning Ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and therefore void.
¶9. Zoning issues are "legislative in nature."
¶10. As to the ordinance's application, this Court will affirm a board's zoning decision unless it is clearly "arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, illegal, or without [a] substantial evidentiary basis."
¶11. Justice Coleman recognizes this Court's precedent but advocates we change the law and pursue a new approach. What he prefers is a purely de novo review, giving absolutely no deference to interpretations by local governing boards. We disagree with the wisdom of this suggestion. We also see no constitutional infirmity in our present law.
¶12. The first problem with this suggested change is that it overlooks the practical reality that, to resolve zoning issues, local governing boards must interpret ordinances to apply them. If we were to accept this logic to its ultimate conclusion, local boards would have to stop and run to the courthouse for guidance every time an ordinance-interpretation question arises.
¶13. Second, Mississippi's law does not run afoul of Sections 1 and 2 of our Constitution. The Board is not overstepping its bounds into the judiciary's role by interpreting local ordinances. The Board is simply acting within its own established role as creator and enforcer of local law. Similarly, by giving deference to a local board's interpretation, we are not ceding our judicial power. In the cases that have applied a deferential standard of review, this Court has never suggested we lack authority to reverse a board's decision. Instead, what we have recognized is the obvious—that a local board is in the best position to interpret its own local ordinances. Thus, by giving great weight to the Board's interpretation, we ensure we stick to our constitutional role as the judiciary. And we restrain our branch from becoming a super-municipal board—a role that would certainly usurp the powers of the local governing body.
I. The Board's Decision
¶14. With this standard in mind, the Ordinance clearly defines the permitted uses for each of the two relevant sections—A-1 zoning under Section 501 and R-1 zoning under Section 601. A-1 zoning covers "Agricultural Districts," while R-1 zoning applies to "Residential Estate Districts."
A. Agricultural Districts
¶15. Article V, Section 501, of the Ordinance defines the "LAND USES PERMITTED" for A-1 zoning. Section 501(F) permits A-1 zoned land to be used for "Breeding, raising, and feeding of livestock (i.e. horses, cattle, sheep, goats, mules, pigs, etc.), provided that each such animal herein defined as `livestock' shall be kept on a tract of land or lot of one (1) acre or land or greater." And subsection (G) permits the "Breeding, raising and feeding of chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, or other fowl[.]"
¶16. So in Agricultural Districts, breeding, raising, and feeding fowl is an expressly permitted use.
B. Residential Estate Districts
¶17. The problem Hatfield faces is that he lives in Deer Haven subdivision—which is not zoned as an Agricultural District. Thus, the permitted uses under A-1 zoning do not apply to his neighborhood. Instead, Deer Haven subdivision is zoned as a Residential Estate District. Thus, it is subject to the express permitted uses allowed under R-1 zoning.
¶18. Article VI, Section 601 defines the "LAND USES PERMITTED" for R-1 zoning. Section 601(D) states:
But unlike A-1 zoning, R-1 does not include breeding, raising, and feeding chickens, ducks, or other fowl as a permitted use.
¶19. The Board noted this obvious distinction and found Hatfield was in violation of Section 601, since keeping or raising fowl is not listed as a permitted use in R-1 zoned areas like Deer Haven subdivision.
¶20. In construing R-1 zoning's permitted uses, the Board concluded "livestock" and "grazing livestock" did not include fowl. Hatfield claims this decision was arbitrary and capricious. As support, Hatfield points to deposition testimony from the separate DHOA lawsuit. In that action, Weeks supposedly testified that he was uncertain what the phrase "grazing livestock" encompasses. Hatfield couples this deposition testimony—which is not a part of this record—with the Ordinance's lack of exclusive definitions for "livestock" or "grazing livestock."
¶21. In applying an ordinance, an arbitrary decision is one "not done according to reason or judgment, but depending on the will alone."
¶22. We find the Board's decision to deny Hatfield's request to continue keeping or raising fowl was not arbitrary, especially when viewed in light of Section 501. Weeks's testimony in the DHOA lawsuit is not properly a part of this record. Nor does Hatfield provide authority to show Weeks's interpretations of the Ordinance, in his DHOA lawsuit deposition, are binding. And the Board noted that, in addition to livestock, A-1 zoned land expressly lists keeping or raising fowl as a separate, specific permitted use. But R-1 zoned land—like Deer Haven subdivision—does not. So the Board's decision that "chickens, guineafowl, and ducks" were not permitted on Hatfield's residential property was not based on its mere will, but was reasoned.
¶23. Nor was the Board's decision capricious. The Board considered its past actions in interpreting and applying Section 601, which were consistent with this decision. The minutes specifically reference a previous distinct matter,
¶24. Still, even if this Court had some uncertainty with the Board's decision, where the issue is "`[f]airly debatable' [it] is the antithesis of arbitrary and capricious."
¶25. We therefore find the Board's decision was supported by substantial evidence, was neither arbitrary nor capricious, and was unquestionably fairly debatable.
II. Constitutionality of Section 601
¶26. Hatfield also insists that, by not exclusively defining "livestock" or "grazing livestock," Section 601 could be interpreted to include poultry, fowl, and/or birds. Thus, he suggests, Section 601 is unconstitutionally vague and lacks "clear notice and sufficiently definite warning of that which is prohibited."
¶27. Section 601 gives the following examples of permitted "livestock"— "(i.e. horses, cattle, sheep, goats, mules, etc.)." But Hatfield says these examples are not enough. He argues that because "livestock" and "grazing livestock" are used interchangeably, and the parenthetical contains the phrase "et cetera," Section 601 gives no clear notice of what is considered "livestock." This position is unreasonable. The listed examples are obviously limited to large, four-legged, hoofed animals—not "chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, or other fowl[.]" And there is no reasonable interpretation to the contrary.
¶28. Still, Hatfield argues the Board's decision and application of Section 601 is analogous to the circumstances faced in
¶31. Both cases are easily distinguished from this one. The question here is far simpler: Are the terms "grazing livestock" and "livestock," along with the express examples, sufficient to notify Hatfield that keeping or raising fowl on his property was prohibited? Based on the Ordinance's listed examples and the differing permitted uses for Agricultural and Residential Districts, the answer is yes.
¶32. And Hatfield's situation differs from
¶33. Also important is the requirement that this Court not read zoning ordinance sections in isolation. See
¶34. Not only do the listed examples make clear that "livestock" or "grazing livestock" does not include fowl, but the differing express permitted uses of the two districts—A-1 and R-1—put Hatfield on notice that keeping or raising fowl was not allowed on R-1 zoned land.
¶35. We find the Ordinance is sufficiently clear that keeping or raising fowl, while expressly permitted in A-1 zoned districts, is not permitted in R-1 zoned districts. And the Board's interpretation to this effect is not manifestly unreasonable.
¶36. The Board's interpretation and decision, finding that Hatfield violated Section 601 by keeping or raising fowl on his R-1 zoned property, was reasonable and not arbitrary or capricious. Its decision was also, at a minimum, fairly debatable. Likewise, Section 601, when read in light of the entire Madison County Zoning Ordinance, gave Hatfield sufficient notice that keeping or raising fowl on his property was prohibited. We therefore affirm the circuit court's decision.
COLEMAN, JUSTICE, CONCURRING IN PART AND IN RESULT:
¶38. I concur with the majority's analysis of today's case with the exception that I am of the opinion that our standard of review when interpreting an existing zoning ordinance should be de novo. However, even under a de novo standard of review, I agree with the result reached by the majority, that is, that the ordinance in question does not authorize Hatfield to keep fowl on his property.
I. The Court's standard of review as to the interpretation of the pertinent zoning ordinance should be
¶39. Hatfield contends that the interpretation of the Madison County Ordinance 601 is a question of law and should be subject to a de novo standard of review. Although we have held, in cases discussed more fully below, that the courts should grant deference to local legislative bodies in their interpretations of ordinances, I disagree for two reasons. First, an overwhelming majority of our sister states have held that reviews of interpretations of zoning ordinances are questions of law, and we consistently have maintained — even in zoning cases — that the standard of review for questions of law is de novo. Second, because the interpretation of ordinances is a question of law, sharing the authority to interpret statutes and ordinances with another branch of government violates Article I, Section 2 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, which forbids the sharing of power between the three branches of state government. Because our cases in which we hold that deference should be afforded to the local legislative body in interpreting ordinances create conflict with the usual de novo standard of review applicable to questions of law and, further, indicate that the Courts have ceded judicial power to other branches of government in violation of Section 2 of the Constitution of 1890, I would hold that henceforth we will review the interpretation of zoning ordinances de novo. Of necessity, I would further overrule cases that indicate that the courts should give deference to the local zoning authorities when it comes to interpreting existing zoning ordinances.
A. The interpretation of zoning ordinances is a question of law.
¶40. I agree with the majority when it writes that, even in zoning cases, questions of law are reviewed de novo. (Maj. Op. at ¶ 9) (citing, inter alia,
¶41. To be clear, some of the courts listed above give varying degrees of deference in interpreting zoning ordinances despite categorizing the interpretation as a matter of law. However, Mississippi courts should review them de novo. Again, in cases involving the interpretation of zoning ordinances, questions of law are reviewed de novo. The interpretation of an existing ordinance is a question of law, therefore the Court should review it de novo rather than with deference.
B. The interpretation of the law is a constitutional function of the courts, and sharing the power with other branches by giving deference to another branch's interpretation of the law violates the separation of powers under the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.
¶42. I agree with Hatfield when he urges the Court to examine the ordinance at issue de novo for an additional reason. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 draws stark lines between the powers of the three branches of government. Section 1 reads, "The powers of the government of the State of Mississippi shall be divided into three distinct departments, and each of them confided to a separate magistracy, to-wit: those which are legislative to one, those which are judicial to another, and those which are executive to another." (Emphasis added.) Following closely on its heels, Section 2 provides as follows:
To be sure, we have held that in certain limited situations, we have no authority under the Mississippi Constitution to interpret laws when the Constitution authorizes another branch to interpret those laws. See, e.g.,
¶43. Our cases make it clear. "The ultimate authority and responsibility to interpret the law, including statutes, rests with this Court."
C. Because our cases in which we hold that deference should be afforded to the local legislative body in interpreting ordinances create a conflict with our continued claim that issues of law are review de novo in zoning cases and conflict with the separation of powers under Mississippi's Constitution, we should overrule the cases affording deference in interpretaton of questions of law.
¶44. The majority cites, inter alia,
¶45. However, another line of cases affords deference to the local zoning agencies in the interpretation of zoning ordinances. For example, the Board of Supervisors relies on
II. The plain language of the zoning ordinance does not authorize the keeping of fowl.
¶47. Reviewing the residential zoning ordinance de novo, rather than for arbitrariness, I nevertheless agree with the result reached by the majority and the lower court. Section 601(D) of Article VI of the Zoning Ordinance of Madison County, Mississippi, which is applicable to Hatfield's property, allows the "[b]reeding, raising, and feeding of grazing livestock (i.e., horses, cattle, sheep, goats, mules, etc.), provided that each such animal herein defined as "grazing livestock" shall be kept on a tract or lot of one (1) acre of land or greater. . . ."
¶48. Although the majority employs a different standard of review, I agree with its reasoning regarding the meaning of the words used in the ordinance. Although Hatfield cites a dictionary definition of the word livestock that includes poultry as an example, not all definitions do. For example, one dictionary defines the term livestock as "the horses, cattle, sheep, and other useful animals kept or raised on a farm or ranch." Livestock, Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 2001). While the quoted definition does not explicitly exclude fowl, the focus matches that of the examples listed in the ordinance in that the examples are of four-legged, grass-eating mammals commonly thought of as pastured animals. The definition of the word grazing continues the theme. Grazing is defined as "to feed on growing grass and pasturage, as do cattle, sheep, etc." Grazing, Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 2001). Also, the Board of Supervisors chose to preface its list of examples with "i.e.," which means "that is." I.e., Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 2001). It is a more restrictive choice than the common alternative, e.g., which means "for example." E.g., Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 2001). In choosing it, and then listing — as the majority points out — four-legged mammals, the Board evidenced the intent not to include fowl. Finally, Hatfield argues that the use of "etc." at the end of the list of animals opens the definition of grazing livestock to fowl. While he is correct that the use of et cetera indicates the list is not exhaustive, the phrase denotes "more of the same sort, or class. . . ." Et cetera, Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2d ed. 2001). I agree with the majority that fowl are not of the same sort of class as the animals listed in the Board's definition of grazing livestock.
¶49. Pursuant to the foregoing, I concur with the majority as to every issue except the standard of review for interpreting ordinances. However, even if viewed de novo, I am of the opinion that the ordinance in question does not authorize Hatfield to keep fowl on his property in Madison County. Accordingly and with respect I concur in part and in the result.