Hayward v. Gaston

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware
Citation542 A.2d 760
PartiesCharles E. HAYWARD, Secretary of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, Defendant Below, Appellant, v. Robert and Jackie GASTON, Ronald and Connie Gearhart, James Faulkner, Harvey and Stephanie Reed, Seldon and Gladys Greene, David and Gail Lewis, Thomas and Rosemary Reynolds, Thomas Reynolds, Jr., Russell Greene, Margaret McGorman, Fred and Veronica Hensing, and William S. and Ruth Lewis, Plaintiffs Below, Appellees. . Submitted:
Decision Date15 December 1987

Richmond L. Williams, Deputy Atty. Gen., Dept. of Justice, Wilmington, for appellant.

N. Maxson Terry, Jr., Terry, Jackson, Terry & Wright, Dover, for appellees.

Brian J. Hartman, Disabilities Law Program, Community Legal Aid Society, Inc., Wilmington, for amici curiae, Delaware Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, Handicap Advocacy Network of Delaware, Inc., and New Castle County Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Before CHRISTIE, C.J., and HORSEY, MOORE, WALSH and HOLLAND, JJ., constituting the Court en banc.

WALSH, Justice:

This is an appeal by Charles Hayward, Secretary of the State Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families ("Department"), from a decision of the Court of Chancery enjoining the Department from operating a residential treatment center ("RTC") for emotionally disturbed juveniles in an area known as Brenford in Kent County, Delaware. The injunction was granted at the request of certain Brenford residents who alleged that the establishment of the RTC in a building erected as a single family dwelling violated the Kent County Zoning Ordinance. In granting injunctive relief the Vice Chancellor, in a series of unreported decisions, including one rendered after remand from this Court, rejected the Department's contention that it was immune from the operation of the ordinance. He further ruled that the Department's proposed RTC was not permitted under the zoning ordinance. We conclude that the decision of the Court of Chancery is legally and evidentially sustainable and accordingly affirm. Because this appeal presents the first opportunity for this Court to address the question of governmental immunity in relation to local zoning regulations, we recite in detail the basis for our affirmance.


The factual background of this dispute is brief and uncontroverted although its procedural history in the Court of Chancery, and in this Court, has been somewhat extended. In early 1984, the Department leased a single family residence owned by Samuel and Gloria Anthony with the intention of using the dwelling, to be known as "Brenford Place," to house ten emotionally disturbed juveniles. The admission criteria for RTCs require that the residents have existing emotional and/or behavioral problems with the potential to benefit from treatment services in a residential setting. Before the Department was able to place any individuals in Brenford Place, appellee Gaston, along with other neighboring landowners, filed suit to enjoin the operation contending that the Department's proposed use was not permitted in an Agricultural-Conservation ("AC") district under the Kent County Zoning Ordinance. The Department promptly moved for summary judgment on the ground that its activities were not subject to local zoning ordinances.

In denying summary judgment the Court of Chancery held that: (1) the Department's use of Brenford Place as an RTC violated the Kent County Zoning Ordinance; and (2) the State is not immune from the provisions of the ordinance. The Chancery Court, however, ruled that a factual issue existed as to whether a statutory provision creating an exemption from Kent County's zoning authority for facilities housing developmentally disabled persons applied to Brenford Place.

Subsequently, trial was held to determine if the State's use of Brenford Place fell within the statutory exception. After hearing extensive expert testimony about the physical and mental condition of the expected residents, the Vice Chancellor concluded that the Department's use of Brenford Place did not qualify as the exception to the zoning ordinance. The court also rejected the State's claim that Kent County's zoning regulations violated the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.

In an order dated September 22, 1986, the Court of Chancery permanently enjoined the State and the owners of the property from using Brenford Place as an RTC. The parties, by stipulation, stayed the injunction pending the outcome of this appeal. The private landowners, the Anthonys, have not joined in the appeal from the Chancery Court's injunction. However, the Court has permitted three organizations, the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, the Handicap Advocacy Network of Delaware, Inc. and the New Castle County Alliance for the Mentally Ill, all represented by the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc., to file a brief as amici curiae in support of the Department's appeal.

After initial briefing and argument, this Court directed a remand to the Court of Chancery to permit that court to make findings of fact concerning the appellees' contention that the Department had voluntarily subjected itself to local zoning requirements in other counties in the establishment of RTCs. After a hearing, the Court of Chancery concluded that although there did not appear to be "any announced general State policy" evidencing voluntary compliance with local zoning ordinances, the Department had, "as a matter of good public relations," attempted compliance in the location of RTCs in other instances. The Court noted that Brenford Place is the only example of a building which is in "apparent violation of a local zoning ordinance."

Despite its permutations, this appeal now requires this Court to address an issue of first impression: to what extent, and under what conditions, is the State, acting through its agencies, subject to zoning restrictions imposed by subordinate governmental entities? If such immunity is found not to exist in this case, we are required to determine if the Court of Chancery correctly ruled that the Department's proposed use of Brenford Place as an RTC is not permitted under the Kent County Zoning Ordinance.


This case presents an instance of a clash of fundamental authority between two governmental entities, each attempting to exercise sovereignty within its respective jurisdiction. The State, acting through the Department, seeks to implement the specific legislative policy of assisting and caring for emotionally disturbed adolescents committed to its charge. Kent County, whose interests are espoused by the appellee property owners, pursues an equally compelling interest, i.e., the regulation of land use under its zoning power, also at legislative direction.

The conflict between the intruding governmental use and local zoning restrictions has been resolved by the courts through a variety of methods. One approach, the so-called hierarchical test, resolves the issue in favor of the governmental entity in a position of greater sovereignty unless the legislature has expressly directed a contrary result. See Aviation Services, Inc. v. Board of Adjustment, 20 N.J. 275, 119 A.2d 761 (1956). Other courts have resolved such zoning disputes in terms of whether the proposed land use was "governmental" or "proprietary" in nature. If the intended use is in furtherance of a governmental function it will override local zoning ordinances while proprietary uses will not. See City of Scottsdale v. Municipal Court of Tempe, 90 Ariz. 393, 368 P.2d 637 (1962). A third, and often applied, test of governmental intrusion into zoning restrictions is the eminent domain approach. This standard posits immunity on whether the intruding governmental entity possesses the right of eminent domain, i.e., whether the governmental body has the right to condemn private property for the use in question. Mayor of Savannah v. Collins, 211 Ga. 191, 84 S.E.2d 454 (1954); State v. Board of County Com'rs, Ohio C.P., 79 N.E.2d 698 (1947), aff'd, 83 Ohio App. 388, 78 N.E.2d 694 (1948), appeal dismissed, 149 Ohio St. 583, 79 N.E.2d 911 (1948). Immunity has been deemed to exist based on the right to condemn even where the property has been acquired through negotiated purchase. State v. Kopp, Mo. Supr., 330 S.W.2d 882 (1960).

The traditional tests for resolving claims of overlapping governmental authority have most often resulted in the upholding of state policies whenever those concerns conflict with laws and regulations adopted by subordinate political bodies such as counties and municipalities. See McQuillin, Mun.Corp. § 25.15 (3rd Ed. 1983). These rules, with their heavy emphasis on the attributes of sovereignty, have been criticized as overlooking the central question of whether the proposed use or its restriction best serves the public interest. See Note, Governmental Immunity From Local Zoning Ordinances, 84 Harv. L. Rev. 869 (1971).

Dissatisfaction with the earlier approach to the sovereignty issue has led to the development of new standards, the most prominent of which is the so called balancing of interests test first articulated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Rutgers, State University v. Piluso, 60 N.J. 142, 286 A.2d 697 (1972). In ruling that the growth and development of a public university should not be thwarted by local land use regulations, the court fashioned a balancing of governmental interests analysis. The court rejected the traditional approaches as simplistic and categorized, emphasizing instead the need for individual analysis to determine which governmental interest should prevail based on "the particular relationship and factual situation" involved. Id., 286 A.2d at 701. The court began its analysis with the statement that the judicial task involves a search for legislative intent which is "rarely specifically expressed." Id. 286 A.2d at 702. In seeking to...

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