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Refereeing a Referendum
by Ron Davis

Voters in Meridian, MI, have rejected a plan for development of property adjacent to a local shopping center for additional commercial purposes.

That property is owned by Newman Equities, which also developed the shopping center, Meridian Mall. But voters obviously want to preserve the property at issue for single-family residential use, and in a special referendum they got their way.

That vote was a severe setback for the owners. The principals of Newman Equities had already gained the okay of the Meridian planning commission and the Meridian town board for a zoning change. They all agreed that the best use of the property would be commercial.

So it came as a shock to local officials as well as the owners of the property when voters, through the special referendum, forced the property’s zoning status to become a single-family residential designation. The property owners appealed to the courts to allow them development of their property as they wanted. They argued that the single-family residential designation of the property is not in keeping with the local land-use plan that provides guidelines for zoning.

In response, a citizens’ group pointed out that the land-use plan also does not call for commercial development of the property. (In fact, the land-use plan apparently designates the property for “multifamily residential” development.)

A local judge agreed with the property owners, however, and declared the results of the referendum “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious” and therefore null and void. The citizens’ group challenged that decision, contending that residential zoning of the property was the most appropriate use and conformed with the land-use plan for the town and surrounding area.

In a split decision, an appellate court overruled the local judge, explaining, “There is certainly room for legitimate debate and difference of opinion as to whether zoning the subject parcel commercial or residential is more or less consistent with surrounding uses and development. Affording the referendum decision the deference we must, we cannot conclude that the residential zoning scheme imposed is unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious. The voters, through the referendum, have resolved the issue and we must defer to their judgment.” (Newman Equities v. Charter Township of Meridian, 2004 WL 2384466)

Decision: October 2004
Published: November 2004



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