What is spot zoning (particularly in the case of a rezone) and is it always illegal?
Spot zoning is basically disfavored in our state. The basic definition of spot zoning in Washington was outlined in Narrowsview Preservation Association v. City of Tacoma, 84 Wn.2d 416 (1974), in which the court said:
We have recently stated that illegal spot zoning is arbitrary and unreasonable zoning action by which a smaller area is singled out of a larger area or district and specially zoned for use classification totally different from and inconsistent with the classification of the surrounding land, not in accordance with a comprehensive plan
The reasons for invalidating a rezone as an illegal spot zone usually include one or more of the following: (1) the rezone primarily serves a private interest, (2) the rezone is inconsistent with a comprehensive plan or the surrounding territory, or (3) the rezone constitutes arbitrary and capricious action. Each situation must be determined on its own facts and it is not always easy to determine conclusively whether a rezone would constitute an illegal spot zone.
According to Richard Settle in Washington Land Use and Environmental Law and Practice, the issue with spot zoning is not the differential regulation of adjacent land but the lack of public interest justification for such discrimination. Where differential zoning merely accommodates some private interest and bears no rational relationship to promoting legitimate public interest, it is "arbitrary and capricious" and hence "spot zoning." The term "spot zoning" is not really a distinct legal doctrine. It is really a "misleading term for the application of the constitutional requirements of equal protection and substantive due process." See Settle at section 2.11(c). Courts will overturn a rezone if it grants a "discriminatory benefit to one or a group of owners to the detriment of their neighbors or the community at large without adequate public advantage or justification. . . ." Bassani v. County Commissioners, 70 Wn. App. 389 (1993).
The following are some links to information on spot zoning and contract rezones/concomitant agreements:
- "Understanding Spot Zoning," by Robert C. Widner, Planning Commissioners Journal, No. 13, Winter 1994
- "Spot Zoning," excerpt from "A Short Course on Local Planning," ver. 5.1, Planning Association of Washington and Washington State Department of Commerce, July 2009 (see Chapter 5(A)(2)(b)(7))
- "Removing Spot Zoning From the Fabric of Zoning Practice" (Includes description of spot zoning law in other states in addition to a summary of Washington law), Public Policy Brief, Gary D. Taylor, J.D., Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan State University Extension, January 2004
- Spot zoning definition from U.S. Legal.
Some jurisdictions that have rezone criteria that discourage spot zoning:
Mercer Island Unified Land Development Code, §19.15.020(G)(2)
2. Reclassification of Property (Rezones).
a. The proposed reclassification is consistent with the policies and provisions of the Mercer Island comprehensive plan;
b. The proposed reclassification is consistent with the purpose of the Mercer Island development code as set forth in MICC 19.01.010;
c. The proposed reclassification is an extension of an existing zone, or a logical transition between zones;
d. The proposed reclassification does not constitute a "spot" zone;
e. The proposed reclassification is compatible with surrounding zones and land uses; and
f. The proposed reclassification does not adversely affect public health, safety and welfare.
Port Angeles Municipal Code, §17.96.100:
A. In determining if an amendment to these regulations is needed, the City Council shall give due consideration to the proper relationship of such amendment to the Comprehensive Plan and the entire Zoning Regulations; it being the intent to retain the integrity and validity of the zones herein described and to avoid any isolated spot zoning changes in the Zoning Map.
B. Any amendments adopted by the City Council may be modified from the form in which they were advertised within the limits necessary to relate properly such amendment or amendments to the Zoning Regulations. Final action on such modifications shall be subject to review and report of the Planning Commission prior to final passage by the City Council.
C. No application for a change of zoning of any lot, parcel or portion thereof shall be considered by the City Council within one year of the final action of the Council upon a prior application covering any of the same described land. This provision, however, shall not impair the right of the Council to propose by its own action any amendment or change in the boundaries of any of the zones in these regulations. (Ord. 3272, 2/17/2007; Ord. 2861 Sec. 1 (part), 3/17/1995; Ord. 2668 Sec. 12 (part), 1/17/1992; Ord. 1709 Sec. 1 (part), 12/22/1970)