If you heard a collective sigh of relief around Ohio on Thursday, it was likely coming from Ohio townships after learning the outcome of the long-awaited “Phantom Fireworks” court case. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Ohio townships may rely on countywide comprehensive land use plans as a basis for township zoning, rather than preparing individual township comprehensive plans. B.J. Alan Co. v. Congress Twp. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-5863 (Nov. 12, 2009).
I tend to like the pragmatic opinions authored by Justice Pfeifer, and this case is no exception. The decision answers with brevity the question of whether a township must prepare its own comprehensive land use plan in order to comply with Ohio zoning law. Examining the language of Ohio Revised Code 519.02, which grants townships the authority to utilize zoning “in accordance with a comprehensive plan,” the court determined that the statute does not require each township to develop its own comprehensive plan. Such an interpretation would be reading additional language into 519.02, said the court, and “the law requires only that a zoning resolution be ‘in accordance with a comprehensive plan.’” A countywide comprehensive plan is sufficient, and “accounts for the interrelationship of communities and marshals resources and expertise.”
Had the court reached a different conclusion, it would have invalidated hundreds of Ohio township zoning resolutions that are based on county land use plans. This was the hope of the B.J. Alan Company, which brought the case as a challenge to a zoning decision by Congress Township in Wayne County. The township denied the company’s request for a use variance to allow it to construct a Phantom Fireworks store on land zoned for agricultural use. When the case went to the court of appeals, that court agreed with the company’s argument that Congress Township’s zoning resolution was invalid according to ORC 519.02 because it was not based on a township comprehensive plan.
The controversial nature of the case led to parties lining up in interesting partnerships on both sides of the appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Backing the township were the Ohio Township Association, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Wayne County Farm Bureau and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association. On the opposite side in support of B.J. Alan Company’s appeal were the Ohio Home Builders’ Association, American Planning Association and Ohio Planning Conference.
The Supreme Court referred the case back to the court of appeals to resolve the question of whether Congress Township’s zoning is indeed “in accordance with” the Wayne County comprehensive plan. The court did examine the county plan, and held that the plan itself is a valid comprehensive plan for purposes of ORC 519.02. Sidestepping the fact that Ohio law does not clearly define a “comprehensive plan,” the court concluded that the Wayne County plan “presents a thorough study of the region and sets forth comprehensive land-use goals for the County.”
For now, townships need not panic about finding the time and funds to develop township comprehensive plans. Townships may continue to enforce their zoning resolutions based on county plans. Unknown to us is whether B.J. Alan Company will need to find a new piece of land for its Phantom Fireworks store—that decision is now in the hands of the appellate court.