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Reaume v. Township of Spring Lake

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 21, 2019

SUSAN REAUME, Plaintiff-Appellant,
TOWNSHIP OF SPRING LAKE, Defendant-Appellee.

          Ottawa Circuit Court LC No. 17-004964-AA

          Before: Gleicher, P.J., and Ronayne Krause and O'Brien, JJ.

          RONAYNE KRAUSE, J.

         Plaintiff, Susan Reaume, appeals by leave granted[1] the trial court's order affirming the denial by defendant, the Township of Spring Lake (the Township), of plaintiff's application for a short-term rental license. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2003, plaintiff purchased a home ("the property") located in the Township. The property has at all relevant times been located within the "R-1 Low Density Residential" zoning district. Plaintiff utilized the property as her full-time residence until 2014. In 2015, plaintiff retained a property management company, and an agent of that company made a telephone inquiry to the Township regarding restrictions on short term rentals for the property. According to the agent, a person named Connie Meiste "said that Spring Lake Township had no restrictions on short term or long term rentals." Plaintiff made substantial improvements to the property, and in 2015 and 2016, she rented it out seasonally as a short-term vacation rental. As will be discussed further, plaintiff contends that Lukas Hill, the Township's Zoning Administrator, [2] "expressly affirmed [plaintiff's] right to lawfully use [the property] as a short-term rental." Plaintiff's neighbors, however, objected to the use of the property for short-term rentals and lodged complaints with the Township.

         In December 2016, the Township adopted Ordinance No. 255, which prohibited short-term rentals in the R-1 zone. However, the ordinance allowed long-term rentals of more than 28 days. The ordinance provided that all short-term rentals must be registered and licensed with the community development director before rental activity could occur. The Township also adopted Ordinance No. 257, which amended the Spring Lake Township Zoning Ordinance to allow "short-term rentals" and "limited short-term rentals," which had independent definitions, in certain zoning districts. Ordinance No. 257 permitted "limited short-term rentals," but not "short-term rentals," in R-1 zones. The amendment defined "limited short-term rentals" as "[t]he rental of any Dwelling for any one or two rental periods of up to 14 days, not to exceed 14 days total in a calendar year."

         Plaintiff applied for a short-term rental license, which the Township denied. She appealed that decision to the Township Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which denied her appeal. Plaintiff then appealed that decision in the trial court. Following a hearing, the trial court affirmed the Township's decision in a written opinion and order. Plaintiff sought leave to appeal in this Court, which was granted.


         We review the interpretation of ordinances de novo. Soupal v Shady View, Inc, 469 Mich. 458, 462; 672 N.W.2d 171 (2003). Ordinances are interpreted in the same manner as statutes; we must apply clear and unambiguous language as written, and any rules of construction are applied "in order to give effect to the legislative body's intent." Brandon Charter Twp v Tippett, 241 Mich.App. 417, 422; 616 N.W.2d 243 (2000). We also review de novo the application of legal and equitable doctrines. Estes v Titus, 481 Mich. 573, 578-579; 751 N.W.2d 493 (2008); Sylvan Twp v City of Chelsea, 313 Mich.App. 305, 315-316; 882 N.W.2d 545 (2015). It is well established that courts will consider the substance of pleadings and look beyond the names or labels applied by the parties. Hurtford v Holmes, 3 Mich. 460, 463 (1855); Norris v Lincoln Park Police Officers, 292 Mich.App. 574, 582; 808 N.W.2d 578 (2011).

         "In general, we review de novo a circuit court's decision in an appeal from a ZBA decision." Hughes v Almena, 284 Mich.App. 50, 60; 711 N.W.2d 453 (2009). However, there is no single standard of review applicable to the appeal itself, because zoning cases typically entail questions of both fact and law. Macenas v Village of Michiana, 433 Mich. 380, 394-395; 446 N.W.2d 102 (1989). The courts must defer to a ZBA's factual findings to the extent they are "supported by competent, material, and substantial evidence on the record." Id. at 395. We in turn review the circuit court's factual findings for, in effect, clear error to determine whether the circuit court properly applied the substantial evidence test. Hughes, 284 Mich.App. at 60. The ZBA's decisions on the basis of its factual findings are also given deference "provided they are procedurally proper … and are a reasonable exercise of the board's discretion." Macenas, 433 Mich. at 395. The ZBA's determinations of law are afforded no deference. Id. at 395-396.

         III. ESTOPPEL

         We observe initially that much of plaintiff's argument is, in substance and effect, an equitable estoppel argument. Equitable estoppel may preclude the enforcement of a zoning ordinance if a party reasonably relies to its prejudice on a representation made by the municipality. Lyon Charter Twp v Petty, 317 Mich.App. 482, 490; 896 N.W.2d 477 (2016), vacated in part on other grounds by 500 Mich. 1010 (2017). Generally, plaintiff contends that prior to the Township's adoption of Ordinance Nos. 255 and 257, it had formally determined and communicated that plaintiff's use of the property for short-term rentals was lawful. Plaintiff therefore concludes that her use of the property is necessarily "grandfathered," and the Township may not deny her permission to continue using her property for short-term rentals. Plaintiff argues that she expended considerable sums of money on renovations and modifications to the property in reliance upon the Township's alleged assurances that short-term rentals were lawful in the R-1 zoning district. However, plaintiff's argument turns on making untenable extrapolations from statements made by individuals who had no authority to bind the Township.

         "[A] historical failure to enforce a particular zoning ordinance, standing alone, is insufficient to preclude enforcement in the present." Lyon, 317 Mich.App. at 489. A municipality may, in some cases, be estopped from enforcement "pursuant to the positive acts of municipal officials which induced plaintiff to act in a certain manner, and where plaintiff relied upon the official's actions by incurring a change of position or making expenditures in reliance upon the officials' actions." Parker v West Bloomfield Twp, 60 Mich.App. 583, 591; 231 N.W.2d 424 (1975); see also Lyon, 317 Mich.App. at 490. The general rule is against estopping municipalities from enforcing zoning ordinances in the absence of "exceptional circumstances," which must be viewed as a whole, and "no factor is in itself decisive." Pittsfield Twp v Malcolm, 375 Mich. 135, 146-148; 134 N.W.2d 166 (1965). However, a municipality cannot be estopped by unauthorized or illegal conduct by individual officers. Parker, 60 Mich.App. at 594-595; see also Blackman Twp v Koller, 357 Mich. 186, 189; 98 N.W.2d 538 (1959). "Casual private ...

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