416 U.S. 1 (1974), 73-191, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas

Docket Nº:No. 73-191
Citation:416 U.S. 1, 94 S.Ct. 1536, 39 L.Ed.2d 797
Party Name:Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas
Case Date:April 01, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

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416 U.S. 1 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 1536, 39 L.Ed.2d 797

Village of Belle Terre



No. 73-191

United States Supreme Court

April 1, 1974

Argued February 19-20, 1974




A New York village ordinance restricted land use to one-family dwellings, defining the word "family" to mean one or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage, or not more than two unrelated persons, living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit and expressly excluding from the term lodging, boarding, fraternity, or multiple dwelling houses. After the owners of a house in the village, who had leased it to six unrelated college students, were cited for violating the ordinance, this action was brought to have the ordinance declared unconstitutional as violative of equal protection and the rights of association, travel, and privacy. The District Court held the ordinance constitutional, and the Court of Appeals reversed.


1. Economic and social legislation with respect to which the legislature has drawn lines in the exercise of its discretion will be upheld if it is "reasonable, not arbitrary," and bears "a rational relationship to a [permissible] state objective," Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 76, and here the ordinance -- which is not aimed at transients and involves no procedural disparity inflicted on some but not on others or deprivation of any "fundamental" right -- meets that constitutional standard, and must be upheld as valid land use legislation addressed to family needs. Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26. Pp. 7-9.

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2. The fact that the named tenant appellees have vacated the house does not moot this case, as the challenged ordinance continues to affect the value of the property. Pp. 9-10.

476 F.2d 806, reversed.

DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 10, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 12, filed dissenting opinions.

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Belle Terre is a village on Long Island's north shore of about 220 homes inhabited by 700 people. Its total land area is less than one square mile. It has restricted land use to one-family dwellings excluding lodging houses, boarding houses, fraternity houses, or multiple-dwelling houses. The word "family," as used in the ordinance means,

[o]ne or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage, living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of household servants. A number of persons but not exceeding two (2) living [94 S.Ct. 1538] and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, though not related by blood, adoption, or marriage shall be deemed to constitute a family.

Appellees, the Dickmans, are owners of a house in the village, and leased it in December, 1971, for a term of 18 months to Michael Truman. Later, Bruce Boraas became a co-lessee. Then Anne Parish moved into the house, along with three others. These six are students at nearby State University at Stony Brook, and none is

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related to the other by blood, adoption, or marriage. When the village served the Dickmans with an "Order to Remedy Violations" of the ordinance,1 the owners plus three tenants2 thereupon brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an injunction and a judgment declaring the ordinance unconstitutional. The District Court held the ordinance constitutional, 367 F.Supp. 136, and the Court of Appeals reversed, one judge dissenting, 476 F.2d 806. The case is here by appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1254(2); and we noted probable jurisdiction, 414 U.S. 907.

This case brings to this Court a different phase of local zoning regulations from those we have previously reviewed. Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, involved a zoning ordinance classifying land use in a given area into six categories. The Dickmans' tracts fell under three classifications: U-2, which included two-family dwellings; U-3, which included apartments, hotels, churches, schools, private clubs, hospitals, city hall and the like; and U-6, which included sewage disposal plants, incinerators, scrap storage, cemeteries, oil and gas storage and so on. Heights of buildings were prescribed for each zone; also, the size of land areas required for each kind of use was specified. The land in litigation was vacant and being held for industrial development, and evidence was introduced showing that, under the restricted-use

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ordinance, the land would be greatly reduced in value. The claim was that the landowner was being deprived of liberty and property without due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court sustained the zoning ordinance under the police power of the State, saying that the line,

which in this field separates the legitimate from the illegitimate assumption of power, is not capable of precise delimitation. It varies with circumstances and conditions.

Id. at 387. And the Court added:

A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, -- like a pig in the parlor, instead of the barnyard. If the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes be fairly debatable, the legislative judgment must be allowed to control.

Id. at 388. The Court listed as considerations bearing on the constitutionality of zoning ordinances the danger of fire or collapse of buildings, the evils of overcrowding people, and the possibility that "offensive trades, industries, and structures" might "create nuisance" to residential sections. Ibid. But even those historic police power problems need not loom large or actually be existent in a given case. For the exclusion of "all industrial establishments" does not mean that "only offensive or dangerous industries will be excluded." Ibid. That fact does not invalidate the ordinance; the Court held:

The inclusion of a reasonable margin to insure effective enforcement will not put upon a law, otherwise valid, [94 S.Ct. 1539] the stamp of invalidity. Such laws may also find their justification in the fact that, in some fields, the bad fades into the good by such insensible degrees that the two are not capable of being readily distinguished and separated in terms of legislation.

Id. at 388-389.

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The main thrust of the case in the mind of the Court was in the exclusion of industries and apartments, and, as respects that, it commented on the desire to keep residential areas free of "disturbing noises"; "increased traffic"; the hazard of "moving and parked automobiles"; the "depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities." Id. at 394. The ordinance was sanctioned because the validity of the legislative classification was "fairly debatable," and therefore could not be said to be wholly arbitrary. Id. at 388.

Our decision in Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, sustained a land use project in the District of Columbia against a landowner's claim that the taking violated the Due Process Clause and the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The essence of the argument against the law was, while taking property for ridding an area of slums was permissible, taking it "merely to develop a better balanced, more attractive community" was not, id. at 31. We refused to limit the concept of public welfare that may be enhanced by zoning regulations.3 We said:

Miserable and disreputable housing conditions may do more than spread disease and crime and immorality.

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They may also suffocate the spirit by reducing the people who live there to the status of cattle. They may indeed make living an almost insufferable burden. They may also be an ugly sore, a blight on the community which robs it of charm, which makes it a place from which men turn. The misery of housing may despoil a community as an open sewer may ruin a river.

We do not sit to determine whether a particular housing project is or is not desirable. The concept of the public welfare is broad and inclusive. . . . The values it represents are spiritual, as well as physical, aesthetic as well as monetary. It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well balanced as well as carefully patrolled.

Id. at 32-33.

If the ordinance segregated one area only for one race, it would immediately be suspect under the reasoning of Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60, where the Court invalidated a city ordinance barring a black from acquiring real property in a white residential area by reason of an 1866 Act of Congress, 14 Stat. 27, now 42 U.S.C. § 1982, and an 1870 Act, § 17, 16 Stat. 144, now 42 U.S.C. § 1981, both enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. 245 U.S. at 78-82. See Jones v. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409.

In Seattle Trust Co. v. Roberge, 278 U.S. 116, Seattle had a zoning ordinance that permitted a "`philanthropic home for children or for old people'" in a particular district

"when the written consent shall have been obtained of the owners of two-thirds of the property within four hundred [94 S.Ct. 1540] (400) feet of the proposed building."

Id. at 118. The Court held that provision of the ordinance unconstitutional, saying that the existing owners could "withhold consent for selfish reasons or arbitrarily, and

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may subject the trustee [owner] to their will or caprice." Id. at 122. Unlike the billboard cases (e.g., Cusack Co. v. City of Chicago, 242 U.S. 526), the Court concluded that the Seattle ordinance was invalid, since the proposed home for the aged poor was not shown by its maintenance and construction "to...

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